Third time must work on school assignment fix

In his State of the City address on Tuesday night, Mayor Menino pledged to “radically” change the Boston Public Schools’ much-maligned school assignment plan by this time next year. This is welcome news to the ears of many thousands of Boston parents who continue to roll the dice— literally— with their kids’ education each year at this time.

To realize this goal, however, the mayor and his team need to first radically change the way they have attempted such reforms in the past, starting with a more open, inclusive, and representative task force charged with considering public comment and engineering a new plan.

Most of all, Menino himself must articulate what he wants to see in such a plan, outline his preferred alternative, and then seek comment from the larger community. Then, after appropriate public comment, he himself needs to sell the final plan to the larger community. This is not one of those issues that the mayor can simply delegate to an expert panel and appointees. It will take his own political will and talents to make it happen — or not.

Unfortunately, Menino and his administration face a considerable credibility gap on this issue. In 2004, hundreds of parents, eager for a change, participated in a series of long public meetings aimed at fixing the assignment plan. In the end, there were no substantive changes made aside from the creation of more K-8 schools. Again, in 2009, the sitting superintendent, Carol Johnson, rolled out a plan that would have re-structured the city into five zones — instead of the current three— and allowed for more walk-to options. Once again that year, citizens were disappointed when — after another round of public meetings— Johnson’s plan was shelved in the face of opposition from activists who claimed that the city’s students of color would be clustered into underperforming schools.

Since then, many more parents have grown disillusioned with the BPS over false starts and poorly thought-out changes, like the proposed closing of the Clap School in Dorchester and the scuttled relocation of Boston Latin Academy. In all of this, Mayor Menino has too often been absent from the forefront when important changes are in the offing, even though all of this is clearly done at his order and behest.

If Menino is sincere about his desire to finally get this done— and to do it within one year— the proof will be in the choices that he and Carol Johnson make in the coming days. We don’t need eight community charrettes to know what’s broken with the assignment plan before designing a fix. We’ve already had those meetings— two times over. Tom Menino and his staff know what’s wrong and they are equipped to design a new system now. The mayor should then take that model around— personally— to community forums across the city and get feedback. After that, he and Johnson should roll out a final plan for everyone to scrutinize and then sell it to communities one by one.

The stakes are high on this: If Menino does not deliver on this promise, it would mark the third time in ten years that he has failed to provide leadership in this critical area. We believe he is up to the challenge.

– Bill Forry

Subscribe to the Dorchester Reporter