MORE than any time since the 1970s battles over school desegregation in Boston, the political climate is favorable for the restoration of neighborhood schools. But first, Superintendent Carol Johnson must prove that every school in the city has the potential to deliver a good education and that savings on cross-city transportation will be enough to offset any disruption to families.
For weeks, Johnson had been pushing a new student assignment proposal that would replace the system's three sprawling zones with five smaller ones. It aimed to pare the city's $76 million school transportation budget and redirect that money to classrooms. And it would phase out a system that Theodore Landsmark, a symbol of the desegregation battle, has chided for busing children "across Boston to schools that are not demonstrably better than schools near their homes."
Johnson had the right idea, but her proposal was only half-baked. She and the school committee are pulling back after a recent article by the Globe's James Vaznis. It revealed that, under the new boundaries, the options for students in some of the poorest neighborhoods would include a disproportionate number of failing schools, as measured by the state MCAS exam. On Wednesday, school officials also divulged that a proposed zone extending from the North End to Roxbury would fall more than 600 seats short of what is needed to accommodate students in grades 6 through 8.
Johnson's next attempt needs to fully examine the relationship between a school's quality and its proximity to students' homes. School officials must also determine the precise savings in transportation costs, especially if a return to neighborhood schools requires the leasing of additional space. It's not good enough to offer vague estimates of $5 million to $10 million in school bus savings over a few years. City Councilor Stephen Murphy, a former transportation manager, has been pressing school officials for weeks for precise information on school bus routes and load factors. He's still waiting.
A strong case remains for a new assignment plan. It would require careful coordination of the offerings in schools, libraries, and community centers. If done right, Boston could move beyond the pilot school model and create entire pilot zones that provide first-rate education along with sports and enrichment programs - especially in poorer neighborhoods. And parents would have easy access for school visits and volunteer opportunities, an advantage in areas where many families lack cars.
Boston should be ready for a neighborhood school plan, as long as it comes with precise cost savings and a convincing school improvement strategy.