'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 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.