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At last week’s Boston City Council meeting, the opening salvos were shot in what will prove to be a long, protracted but ultimately valuable debate about race and education in Boston Public Schools (BPS). Boston’s famously contentious busing program was a watershed when first instituted in 1974. The court order, issued by Judge Arthur W. Garrity, to racially integrate Boston’s public school system opened a rift along racial lines, the vestiges of which have haunted the city since; images of South Boston residents hurling bricks at school buses have remained etched in the city’s collective memory.
Today, the best way to move past these memories is to tackle them head on. Boston’s demographics have changed so drastically since the 1970s that busing is now inadequate to ensure diversity; BPS currently spends more than $24 million on desegregation busing in a system that is 85 percent minority. It is impossible for BPS to reflect Boston’s true diversity with so few of the city’s white majority (54 percent) remaining in the system—a symptom of the “white flight” that has persisted since busing was implemented nearly 30 years ago.
The current plan, which has been proposed in light of legal challenges that forced BPS to cease using race as a factor in their student assignment plan, seeks a return to “neighborhood schools”—assigning students to the schools closest to their homes rather than forcing students to travel to other parts of the city to achieve racial balances. Given that most of Boston’s neighborhoods are far more diverse than they were in the 1970s, this system could potentially reflect the city’s diversity more accurately. It would also allow parents and community members to take more ownership of schools and exert political muscle that could bring increased funding and resources to the most needy of the BPS. The recent growth of charter schools shows that parents and community members are willing to take ownership of schools if given the chance.
The proposed return to neighborhood schools is in its infant stages, and the school department is still computing the attendant projections, but Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s general endorsement—especially given his strong ties with the minority communities in Boston—should guide the council toward this new solution. Clearly, the plan must be crafted with significant input from parents and community groups. It must account for the potential influx of students returning to the BPS from private or parochial institutions if residents have more confidence and ownership in neighborhood schools. Such a dramatic increase in enrollment could put a strain on a system already reeling from budget cuts and teacher shortages. The plan must also ensure that schools in highly minority areas do not suffer from a lack of political empowerment—a possible result of the predominantly white power structure that currently dominates Boston politics.
Boston has been at the forefront of educational segregation battles in the past, and its commitment to busing during those contentious years moved the country forward. But recent reports from the Harvard Civil Rights Project have shown that schools nationally have become more segregated. In such a segregated environment, Boston now has the chance to move the country forward again, by remaking a system that will capitalize on the residential diversity of the city of Boston. Boston benefits from a rich ethnic composition. It is time to help the city’s schools benefit from that richness as well.
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