The high price of school assignment

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By Jenna Russell and Stephanie Ebbert
Globe Staff / June 12, 2011

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Like an army of yellow ants, they march across the city: 691 school buses carrying 32,221 students.

They will cost the Boston public schools a staggering $80 million next year, approaching 10 percent of the total school budget.

To some, the buses that fan out across the city every morning symbolize the freedom to choose the school they want. To others, they are an expensive menace, representing everything that’s wrong with Boston’s school assignment system. Because the city does not have uniformly high-quality schools, parents are given the latitude to select schools across a sprawling geographic area — and then are assigned to one based on a lottery. As a result, thousands of youngsters must ride buses every day, to classrooms miles away from where they live.

Seen at street level at one Dorchester bus stop, the mass transfer of students — an operation as complex as it is controversial — looks at first like any weekday morning anywhere. Children begin streaming toward the intersection of Geneva Avenue and Westville Street before 6 a.m., alone or in pairs, many wearing navy blue and white school uniforms. They convene outside Sobrino’s Market, a small, bright-yellow grocery store, or by a weed-choked chain-link fence.

But unlike children in many Boston suburbs whose morning stroll ends at the nearest schoolyard, the walk to the bus stop is just the start for these students. The first bus rolls up at 6:05 a.m., unfolding its doors to collect a dozen riders, and departs for Dearborn Middle School in Roxbury, where classes start at 7:30. Over the next three hours, 239 students who live within a mile of this bus stop make the slow, daily journey out of their neighborhood aboard 38 buses. Their destinations span an 8-mile stretch from South Boston to Hyde Park.

Cross-neighborhood busing began in the 1970s, a deeply painful period in Boston’s history when white students from South Boston and black students from Roxbury were forced onto buses to desegregate schools. Race is no longer used to make school assignments, but buses still crisscross the city because of the lottery.

“Boston is nothing like it was 30 years ago, and the school assignment policy should have changed with it,’’ said Kevin Monahan, a Dorchester father and longtime critic of the lottery. “It’s a waste of money, and it’s wrong.’’

About $6 million of the transportation budget is spent busing children to public charter schools and private and parochial schools, eye-catching costs that have been widely criticized, but that city officials say they are legally bound to maintain. Private school busing was cut back last year to save money, and city officials are trying to limit the scope of charter school busing.

The system has other inefficiencies: Families don’t have to let schools know if their children will use the buses during the year, so buses always make all their scheduled stops, whether children typically get on or not.

School officials are embarking on another review of the school assignment system. Past efforts to change it have been stalled by controversy about the limitations they would place on parents’ choices.

Students waiting for buses on Geneva Avenue last month were not among those eager to give up their ride to school.

“I’d rather ride a bus than walk,’’ said Tatiana Pires, 10, a fourth-grader waiting for her bus to Roxbury.