Review of March 7 Boston School Committee Hearing on Assignment


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Last night the School Committee held a marathon hearing on the student assignment recommendations by the EAC. The meeting started late to allow more School Committee members to arrive. Chair Michael O'Neill, Alfreda Harris, Claudio Martinez, and John Barros attended. Superintendent Johnson was also present.

The hearing started with a presentation by EAC co-chair Helen Dájer on the EAC's recommendations. This was pretty similar to what we've seen in the past, so I won't get into details. She was joined on the stage by EAC members Miren Uriarte and Rahn Dorsey. The committee had several questions. Most from Claudio Martinez and John Barros. The EAC members answered some questions and Tim Nicolette from BPS answered others. Barros and Martinez mostly asked questions about the equity of the proposed plan. Martinez was particularly interested in the effect on English-language learners (ELL's).

Next the committee asked several groups to testify. First up was QUEST, represented by Megan Wolf, Sai Samant and Carol Martinez. They stressed two areas of concern. The first is that they would like to see the choice "baskets" offered to students be more equitable. Under the proposed plan, students living in areas with mostly poor school would have significantly worse overall quality in their baskets than children living in areas with mostly good schools.

The second issue QUEST raised was the walk zone priority which they oppose due to equity concerns.

Next was Kim Janey of Mass. Advocates for Children. Kim made many of the same points and gave the example of two families, one in Roxbury the other in West Roxbury, with very different levels of quality in their choice baskets.

After that, Mark Draisen of MAPC spoke. He said that MAPC had analyzed the plans for three factors: proximity, equity, and diversity. They strongly preferred the home-based plans over the zone-based plans but did not express a preference for home-based A or B. He said that it was MAPC's recommendation that the walk zone should be left as is and reevaluated after two years. This is exactly what the EAC recommended.

However, he also said that MAPC has requested additional data on the walk zone from BPS and might change their recommendation depending on what that data showed.

Dr. Parag Pathak of MIT and Dr. Tayfun Sonmez of BC gave a presentation on the effects of processing order on walk zone priority. They described how the walk zone priority, as currently implemented, does very little under the current plan. They argued that if walk zone priority is used, walk zone and open slots should be allocated in an alternating fashion and that a different set of lottery numbers should be used for each set of slots. That would make the competition for the open seats truly open meaning that walk zone and non-walk zone kids would have probabilities of getting open seats proportional to the number of each group applying.

They stressed that they weren't making a recommendation on whether to keep walk zone priority or what percentage to use. Dr. Sonmez said that if BPS wanted it to have the same impact it does now they should use around a 13 percent walk zone priority. Their argument is that the current method is not transparent because people would expect walk zone kids to have a decent shot at the open seats which they don't usually have because by the time those are assigned the walk zone kids with the best lottery numbers have already been assigned.

I'm inclined to agree with them. I also feel that if we're going to offer a priority, it should really give people an advantage. For some members of the EAC, I think they found the current walk zone priority acceptable because it makes little difference. They voted for it because they didn't want opposition to dropping the walk zone to distract from other issues. This is not an entirely unreasonable position, but I do think it lacks transparency. The way I look at the walk zone (and QUEST members and others have made the same point) is that it may or may not have much effect, but whatever effect it does have is negative, especially under the recommended plan. Therefore it really doesn't make sense to keep it. The best case scenario is that we're making people think they're getting something that they're really not.

Members of the school committee who were in attendance seemed to seriously consider the idea of dropping walk zone priority. I would be surprised if they rejected the EAC's overall recommendations, but this might be an area that could be changed.

The committee heard public comment from quite a few people. Many were students who testified about student assignment and several other issues. Many described going farther from home to attend a better school and several spoke of the limitations of using MCAS to measure school quality. I was particularly impressed by students from Sociedad Latina who testified about teacher diversity, multi-cultural curriculum and other issues.

Several parents and activists also spoke. Most called for more equity in the assignment plan and for eliminating walk zone priority. I addressed some specific issues which I'll cover in another post.

The meeting adjourned at around 10:30. Remember that there's at least one more chance to speak to the School Committee before they vote. There's a hearing next Wednesday, March 13th at 5 pm at 26 Court St.


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