'Controlled Choice' in Boston
The New School Desegregation Proposal
Fifteen years ago, a court-ordered school desegregation plan tore apart the social fabric of Boston. Blacks bused to schools in white neighborhoods were threatened and even beaten, while many white politicians staked their political careers on attempts to reverse the progress towards racial integration in the schools. Boston city politics were defined by race.
Today, another Boston desegregation plan is on the table. Proposed less than two months ago, the plan received preliminary approval on Tuesday night from the Boston School Committee, which is responsible for maintaining desegregation. A public hearing on the matter will be held next Tuesday and a final vote will be taken by the School Committee on Monday, February 27.
The issues involved now are almost completely different from those of 1975. Today, minority groups in Boston are the ones hesitant to embrace the desegregation scheme. And although the shadow of racial politics still hangs over the current debate, everyone involved--white and Black--agrees that the Boston Public School System must remain desegregated.
Yet the current desegregation plan has been beset by political controversy. Since December, when the plan was first announced, opposition has centered not on its merits as an instrument of desegregation but on the politics of its formation.
Black leaders charge that the plan was made without consulting minority groups. Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn and members of the School Committee accuse each other of using educational policy to further their political careers. And parents and minority members of the School Committee refuse to endorse the busing plan until the mayor commits more funding to the school system's budget.
The current controversy grew out of a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling in September, 1987, which declared the Boston Public School System "as desegregated as possible given the realities of modern urban life." With that ruling, the Boston school system had the opportunity to move away from the mandatory busing system which had been in place for 15 years to a more flexible school assignment plan.
The court allowed Boston to pursue more creative schemes for desegregation, saying the time had come to formulate a plan that would enhance education as well as maintain desegregation. Flynn said at the time, "The ruling paves the way for continued improvement and greater parental participation in the student assignment process, while ensuring the maintenance of desegregation standards and equal educational opportunities for all of Boston's schoolchildren."
To find a plan which would meet these lofty requirements, Flynn turned to Harvard. He hired Education School Professor Charles Willie and Michael Alves, a former head of the Massachusetts Department of Education desegregation office. This team, which had previously worked to desegregate schools in Cambridge and Little Rock, Arkansas, joined with the School Committee's Student Assignment Task Force to propose a "controlled choice" plan for Boston.
The idea behind a controlled choice plan, as Willie explains it, is that parents will get to choose their children's school subject to one constraint, race. Boston will be divided into three zones, and each school will have a racial ratio within 10 percent of the zone's racial ratio. Willie, a professor of education and urban studies, says that students will be allowed to attend any school in their zone so long as the racial balance of the school remains intact.
Under the controlled choice plan in Boston, every school with grades kindergarten through eight would be about 70 percent minority and 30 percent white, reflecting the ratio of the entire school population. High schools may be included in the plan at a later date, Willie says.
An additional benefit of the plan, according to its backers, is that it will not only desegregate Boston's schools but also enhance the education of its students. Willie says, "Each choice cycle represents a referendum on a school. If a school isn't educationally attractive for various racial groups...it gives a clear signal that something is wrong and needs to be changed."
But while nobody involved in Boston city politics disputes Willie's claims about the merits of controlled choice, the plan itself has generated intense opposition, and its eventual passage is far from secured.
Questions of Minority Involvement
Last month, the plan encountered its first problem when Black members of the School Committee and some minority advocacy groups said the plan was drafted without any input from Black parents and students.
This charge came during a press conference before the annual Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast in Boston on January 16, two weeks after the School Committee had already adopted controlled choice as a framework for a desegregation scheme.
Juanita Wade, a School Committee member and co-chair of the Student Assignment Task Force which proposed the plan, was quoted then as saying, "The planners did not sit down and say to the plaintiff class, 'what do you want?'"
Mayor Flynn responded by calling Wade's argument "the most bogus point of view I've ever heard."
Before drafting the plan, Willie and Alves held three community forums attended by over 500 people. They met with the Urban League, the Black Educators Alliance and "every recognized advocacy group in the city dealing with education," according to Alves and Ellen Guiney, Flynn's educational adviser.
Willie, who is himself Black, says, "The allegations that minorities were not involved were false. The actual fact of the matter is that there was an extensive amount of majority and minority involvement."
But others say that the charges may reflect minority distrust of Boston city politics, whether or not they accurately portray the circumstances of the plan's development. School Committee President Tom O'Reilley says, "There were probably some legitimate concerns under the rhetoric... Blacks were protected under the courtordered plan. For some, there's a sense of insecurity and risk."
This distrust led Superintendent of Schools Lavalle Wilson to develop his own desegregation plan, which he said accounted for the views of minority Parents. Wilson's plan included not only controlled choice but also school closings, educational themes and other issues. Last Tuesday, Wilson's plan was merged with the School Committee's plan--written by Willie and Alves--with most points of disagreement set aside for further debate.
And many now say that the initial controversy over minority involvement in the plan's formation may dissipate as the School Committee has agreed to hold an additional public hearing.
For example, John O'Bryant, a long-time Black School Committee member, says that lack of minority involvement "was never a serious issue." And Hattie McKinnis, president of the Citywide Parents Council which joined Black School Committee members in making the charges, asserts that at least on some issues, minority voices are now "being heard."
The Mayor and the Bureaucracy
But while the controversy about the extent of minority involvement in the plan may be subsiding, disputes about the political motivations of the plan's opponents are not likely to fade.
The mayor and other proponents of the plan say that individual School Committee members have used the issue of minority involvement to obscure the real reasons for their opposition.
For example, Daniel Burke, a School Committee member from Dorchester, was quoted as calling the Black members "four politicians" who are "more interested in preserving the existing bureaucracy."
The struggle has roots in controlled choice itself, which threatens to take power from the entrenched School Department bureaucracy. Because the choice element means that schools must compete with each other to make themselves more attractive to students, Willie argues that "we have helped Boston move a considerable distance towards decentralizing its decision-making structure."
But the conflict between the School Department and the mayor goes deeper than this one student assignment plan. Flynn has virtually declared war on the Boston School Department and was quoted as saying, "We're talking about fundamental reform, and I'm taking it forward. And I'm not finished. I want school-based management. I'm for real reform. I know its going to rock the system. And after that, I want a serious review of how the School Committee is elected."
Flynn has even proposed selling the School Department building at 26 Court Street, where most bureaucrats in the system work.
Flynn's advisor Guiney believes the school system bureaucracy is opposing the controlled choice plan because the workers think their jobs are being threatened. She says, "Name any bureaucracy. They don't like to change. I bet Harvard University doesn't even like to change."
No interest groups, however, claim to represent the bureaucracy. According to O'Bryant, the School Committee voted Tuesday night to approve the general idea of school-based management. And McKinnis says, "Parents would like to have things decentralized." Even School Superintendent Wilson is working on his own decentralization plan, according to Ian Forman, Wilson's public information officer.
The Mayor and the School Committee
This debate about the bureaucratic opposition to the desegregation plan is closely linked to Flynn's ongoing battle with the elected School Committee.
Flynn recently created an advisory panel to look into whether the School Committee members should continue to be elected, and that body concluded that an appointed school board would more effectively serve Boston's educational interests.
But while the School Committee continues to remain an elective body, the mayor is considering placing a referendum on the ballot next November that would change the current system. Until then, however, the mayor and his advisers continue to use the dispute about the desegregation plan to highlight their objections to the current School Committee.
Guiney argues that the controversy over minority involvement in the formation of the plan is a case study of the elected School Committee's ineffectiveness. "It certainly does call into question the School Committee's viability as a body which works together," she says. "The Black School Committee member who made the charge met five or six times with the consultants."
But School Committee members charge that an elected body is more democratic, despite the struggles with Flynn. O'Reilley argues, "A School Committee elected by districts is the type of group that will make noise...The School Committee should be the community's advocate for education, [even if] there may be an adversarial relationship [with the mayor]."
The Funding Fight
As the mayor and the School Committee continue to struggle for political control over educational policy, though, an even more serious obstacle to the controlled choice plan compounds the problem.
Black members of the School Committee and parents advocacy groups such as the Citywide Parents Council refuse to endorse the plan until it includes more money to improve the quality of the schools.
Their argument is that a student assignment plan doesn't address the more central question of education. O'Bryant says, "If you're talking about moving children, you're not talking about an educational activity. If you're talking about giving people choice, you have to give them something to choose."
But Guiney argues that school assignment and budget issues are separate. She says, "This wasn't a budget document for the Boston Public Schools which assessed and weighed all plans. This was a student assignment plan...[The mayor] is willing to talk about [money], but only within the context of the school budget."
This conflict reflects the underlying power struggle between the School Committee and Flynn. Calling for more money may be part of representing parents, but is also affords an opportunity for minority members to stake out their own political ground.
The money question also reflects on the fears of minorities that they aren't being heard. McKinnis says, "Parents have been waiting for quality education. That is the number one issue for parents." So if the School Committee fails to include additional funding, the accusation can again be leveled that the group did not listen to the "plaintiffs."
Willie believes that those who want Flynn to commit now to more funding should wait until the plan is implemented before pressing their case.
Schools which aren't chosen by parents under the new plan would emerge as prime targets for increased funding, Willie says. "One has to justify money and that's what this plan does... The issue of money should be driven by what is and what is not functioning effectively and the controlled choice plan provides a means for discovering what is functioning effectively and discovers where resources should be placed," he adds.
As yet, these answers have not been satisfactory to minority groups who see this as a key opportunity to press their demands for a better-funded educational system. McKinnis says the Committee "hasn't moved any further in stating that they do want to see the plan provide the educational enhancements."
And O'Bryant says, "The whole idea is a package... If the city comes through [with more money], I think we'll get it off the ground."
But as the debates continue, most observers agree that Willie's plan is not being judged on its own merits. Political reality may be different from education school theory, and local dynamics may preclude even a widely-liked plan from being passed.
And even if the plan does pass, it may do so at the expense of racial harmony. If controlled choice wins a majority vote of the School Committee over the objections of its four Black members, many say this would represent a major setback for a city trying to emerge from the shadow of racial politics.
Yet Willie remains optimistic. He says, "Each time it comes to a decision-making hurdle, the community has jumped over it...There are very positive signs in Boston that we are likely to get real reform and lasting reform."