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To Bus or Not: Boston’s School-Choice Program

SED dean leads committee reviewing issue

Hardin Coleman, Dean of Boston University School of Education SED

Hardin Coleman, dean of the School of Education, is the chair of a committee reviewing school choice, an often-contentious issue in the Boston school system. Photo by Vernon Doucette

This past fall, Boston school buses regularly arrived as much as an hour late. Months later, some students still don’t make it to school before the first bell, bringing to a head a problem that has dogged the Boston Public Schools for decades: the vast cost, in time and money, of letting parents choose where their children go to school.

The city is divided into three geographic regions, which means families have up to two dozen schools to choose from. Because each region encompasses such a broad physical area, families can choose a school miles away from their home. The current system is the result of a 1974 court order desegregating the city’s schools. That order has long since expired, but the school district still grapples with the costs of busing students around the city. This year $80 million, nearly 10 percent of its annual budget, will be spent on transportation. Estimates suggest those costs could climb to more than $100 million by 2014 if nothing is done.

Mayor Thomas Menino (Hon.’01) wants a better system, one that not only reduces transportation costs, but keeps children closer to home, thus fostering neighborhood schools with more parental involvement. So last month, he and Boston school superintendent Carol Johnson appointed an advisory committee to review the current choice system over the next year.

Hardin Coleman, dean of the School of Education, was tapped by the superintendent to head the 27-member committee, which includes parents of Boston public school students and local business and community leaders. The group held the first of many community meetings last Saturday in Roxbury and will present its recommendations to the Boston School Committee in December.

Boston Public Schools Principal for a Day, Hardin Coleman, Dean Boston University School of Education SED

In 2010, acting as Boston Public Schools Principal for a Day, SED Dean Hardin Coleman (left) listens as Linda Nathan of Boston Arts Academy talks with student Vasili Luzanau about his project. Photo by Cydney Scott

BU Today caught up with Coleman to talk about the committee’s work on an issue that could well prove to be contentious.

BU Today: Did you hear anything that surprised you at Saturday’s meeting?
Coleman: There were a couple of people with high-school-aged kids who came to talk about how their children have benefited from meeting people from a different social and cultural mix than what is in their neighborhood. They valued the experience of diversity. The distressing comments were from parents feeling that choice was an illusion, that no matter what system is created, there are people with enough social capital to manage it to their advantage.

How big a role does choice play in the quality of schools?
What studies are finding is that it doesn’t matter what kind of school it is—for example, if it’s a magnet school or whether parents have choice. It comes down to the quality of the teachers. The more high-quality teachers you have in a school, the better it will perform, regardless of the type of students. Poverty in general predicts educational outcome phenomenally, but if you look at a school with a high poverty rate that is performing well, the difference is in the quality of the teachers.

By 2014, the district will be spending $100 million on transportation before it buys a book or hires a teacher. You have to wonder what the district as a whole gains with that. If you put that money into improving the schools by recruiting and retaining good teachers, then students could go to a good school near their home. That would in turn reduce transportation costs. Which is the best investment? Having a quality school or choice and transportation. I might be tipping my hand a little on what I believe.

Is race an issue in this conversation?
Yes and no. My father [William T. Coleman (Hon.’10)] believes the only way to improve educational outcomes is to have desegregated schools. I disagree with him, and we have argued about this for years. I think the most important factor is competent teachers in the classroom. The data support me. But that question is inconsequential here because Boston busing is no longer integrating students. The population is only 15 percent Anglo. You are moving culturally diverse kids around to schools with other culturally diverse kids. So there’s no busing pattern that would create integration unless you opened it up to the suburbs, such as Brookline, Newton, Winchester. Then you’d get racial and economic balance. But you can’t do that. So busing in Boston serves no purpose when it comes to integration.

But in the big picture, the darker you are, the poorer you are, and if you are male, you are more likely to fail in American schools than if you are white, wealthy, and female. And that data is national. The question becomes, what do we do to reduce the risk factors for our poor black males. Improving schools would be one answer.

Why did you agree to chair the committee?
I think this addresses the issues of our time. And I can go back through generations of my own family who have worked on this issue. My father was a corporate and civil rights lawyer who as a junior lawyer worked on the Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education, which ended legal segregation in the nation’s schools. One of my grandfathers was a social worker in Philadelphia and the other was a physician who did social service work in New Orleans. How to better serve African American boys has been a family issue for generations. And it’s not solved. That’s the scary thing.

What is your biggest hope and biggest concern as the committee reviews the school assignment process?
That the proposals that come forward have strong data support so that people can see why these proposals are made, and that the solutions are given time to work. My biggest fear is that the solutions are generated to assuage various political needs. That rhetoric or ideology come to dominate the process, such as, we have to have choice at all costs. But people on this committee aren’t coming in with a history. They aren’t already committed to a solution.

In the past, the issue of school choice has often become rancorous. How will you avoid that?
Clearly, Boston has a complex racial history. And when you consider choice in schools, you have to visit that broader history. But this conversation needs to focus on how you make sure parents have access to schools that we’d all want to send our kids to. As I told the superintendent, I think there’s an elegant solution out there to be found. If we work together, we will find it. If we break down in acrimony or historical problems, that won’t help us.

Amy Sutherland, What Shamu Taught Me About Life Love and Marriage, Boston Globe, Boston University
Amy Sutherland

Amy Sutherland can be reached at alks@bu.edu.

12 Comments on To Bus or Not: Boston’s School-Choice Program

  • Yourdad on 03.15.2012 at 7:01 am

    Dean Coleman,your father was right and you are (unfortunately) wrong. Busing was necessary back in the 70’s and it took a very brave man, Judge Arthur W Garrity, to enforce it. If you took school choice (and thereby busing) away from families today, kids in poorer neighborhoods would be stuck with other kids in poorer neighborhoods. And schools in those poorer neighborhoods would not magically receive all the money that previously had gone to busing. If busing ended, the first year probably less than 20% of the money (that used to be spent on busing) would be spent on improving schools. The next year that amount would be reduced to just 10%, then 5%…. The money would disappear. This is how school funding works in real life. You are living in an academic la-la land, searching for the Holy Grail of “data”, and naively ignoring Boston’s history of academic inequality if you think taxpayers and politicians will simply transfer all that busing money to the schools. As I say to my son who attends BU, real life is often different than what’s in the textbook. Listen to your dad.

    • E T Harris on 03.16.2012 at 12:01 pm

      He said his father think that racial integration is the ONLY way to improve educational outcomes. Mixing income levels is not racial integration, improving the quality of teachers is not racial integration. Both of these things will improve the quality of education in schools. Statistics, when arrived at properly, are a way to measure reality, people who don’t like them usually don’t like the ones that they disagree with, la la land is saying statistics are useless and then saying that they show money from discontinued busing would not go to improving schools.

  • Maria Nunez on 03.15.2012 at 9:37 am

    I do see a pattern, most kids are going to schools near their homes now as it is and some parents would like there kids to go to suburban schools. I feel that diversity is a necessity for our minority kids. When I was 14, I was bussed to a school in Charlestown where people threw rocks as us. We persevered and as a result, became stronger, received a quality education, and experienced the diversity of other communities and cultures. I feel that all the work we did years ago is being reversed. By stopping bussing to other communities, it is a set back from where we started. Also, I don’t feel that we can just blame the teachers for ours kids’ education. We as parents share the responsibility for our children’s education.

  • C on 03.15.2012 at 9:50 am

    Cool and interesting article–important stuff. It’s got to be mind-boggling trying to figure out how to improve a school system with very limited resources.

    The dean cited several examples of different studies/data evaluating certain issues–anyone know who performs these studies/how they go about it? Who are the authoritative sources in the field? For readers that would like to become more informed on the subject, where is a good a place to go access reliable information?

    • CG on 03.16.2012 at 5:10 pm

      My fee is $10 per word answering questions that can be googled. Interested?

  • em on 03.15.2012 at 11:56 am

    there is a typo in the first paragraph, it should be “choose” and not “chose”

    • Amy M Laskowski on 03.15.2012 at 12:16 pm

      All set, thanks for telling us!

  • Miranda Webster on 03.15.2012 at 8:27 pm

    As a mother of a child who will be entering K1 in BPS in the fall this issue is very important to me. The notion that parents have a choice is kind of a joke. The lottery system allows you to choose several schools but most children are not placed in their first, second or even third choice. I also think it is a miscalculation to suggest that if busing ended that schools would already be diverse. There are huge sections of Boston that are simply not very diverse especially if you are factoring in economic factors. I also wanted to point out that although the Boston Public School population may only be 14 or 15% white, this does not reflect the racial make-up of the city overall. There are many points that could be made about this but one that comes to mind is that if neighborhood schools were brought back, more white parents might be inclined to send their children to BPS (rather than a private school)making the ethnic and socio-economic balance in schools across the city more uneven than it currently is.

  • AP on 03.16.2012 at 11:38 am

    The Boston Public Schools have one of the highest rates of per-pupil spending in the US, at upwards of $20,000 per student. I do not think lack of resources is the reason the schools are not working.

    • jshore on 02.16.2013 at 5:13 pm

      BPS Student Cost:
      Regular Ed Student: $11,558.
      ELL Student: 13,820
      Mod Sped (.3) $18,220.
      Sub Sep Sped (.4) $28,233.
      Private Placement Student $72,913.

      Boston Public Schools at a Glance 2011-2012:

  • T.B. on 03.16.2012 at 1:11 pm

    This is such an important issue to me. I’m an African-American woman born and raised in the heart of Dorchester. School choice is exactly that: a choice. The fact that parents are choosing to send their children to schools outside of their neighborhoods speaks volumes about education equality and diversity in Boston schools.

    Growing up, for only two years of my academic career did I attend school in Dorchester, and even that was in a different area code. My parents wanted my two sisters and I to receive the best education possible. They did not believe that education existed in our Dorchester neighborhood and we all attended schools well outside our borders. I attended schools in Roxbury, East Boston, and, eventually, attended a school in Middlesex County district as a METCO student. Only three distinct times in my entire career did I arrive to school late, and certainly never by an entire hour.

    I believe BPS should took some pointers from the METCO program. When the transportation budget for METCO was cut in my school system, innovation was required. The two school buses we had went from picking up students from numerous stops down to two: one bus waited at Forest Hills station, the other at Ruggles Station. For five years until I finished high school, I took the MBTA across Boston to Ruggles (already farther than many BPS students have to commute) to catch my bus and head to school 20 miles away. We always arrived well before the 7:40am start of the school day. Even when BPS (and every school district in between) had snow days, I still schlepped through Boston to my bus stop and made it to school on time. And it was worth the sacrifice. Moreover, my parents weren’t any less involved in my sisters’ and my academic life. Even with children at far-flung schools (we attended three different METCO school districts), they always made a way to attend meetings, games, recitals, plays, PTA meetings, and open houses.

    The pessimist in me is not so convinced that money saved in transportation will be reinvested in better education in those neighborhoods that most need the extra funding. Really, it’s the transportation system that needs to be reevaluated so parents may continue to have choices and, more importantly, get students to school on time.

  • jshore on 03.17.2012 at 5:21 pm

    “The more high-quality teachers you have in a school, the better it will perform, regardless of the type of students. Poverty in general predicts educational outcome phenomenally, but if you look at a school with a high poverty rate that is performing well, the difference is in the quality of the teachers.”

    I disagree with Dr. Coleman, the difference is the support systems in place at those urban schools that are performing well. If you look at the data of the successful urban schools that he speaks of, the “high-quality teachers” are augmented by in-school support staff, in direct service to students, which makes it possible for those teachers to teach. Boston Public Schools have “high quality” dedicated, veteran teachers, in failing schools, who have worked tirelessly over many years, without results, because the in-school support systems are not in place, because the money is spent on busing. That is the elephant in the closet that needs to be addressed, first, by the Assignment Panel. What are you going to do with the 700+ bus drivers who will be without jobs? Many are Boston residents, over the years, they have seen our students get to school and home again safely. It is no easy task to keep 50+/- kids, on a stop and go ride throughout the city, day-in and day-out. These bus drivers are part of the Boston Public School Community; we have a moral responsibility to them.

    Will Boston University step-up and train these soon to be unemployed bus drivers, for BPS in-school support jobs as attendance officers, timeout room monitors, discipline deans, security paraprofessionals, teaching assistants and fresh food chefs in our schools? These positions were eliminated for “lack of funds” caused by busing, and schools spiraled down. Successful school systems, mentioned by Dr. Coleman, have these in-school support positions, why not Boston Public Schools?

    As Dr. Coleman knows the “turnaround,” and forever spinning, English High School is an example of a once good school that, without the essential in-school support, and experienced school leadership, is still failing. As part of being a turnaround school, the “high-quality,” veteran teaching staff, at “The English High,” was replaced with other “high-quality” teachers of the systems choosing, yet only 50% of the senior students graduated in 2011! Why? “High quality” teachers were in place! In an evaluation of program implementation by the Donahue Institute at UMass, veteran and new teachers, at The English, sited a “lack of support” as the major factor of the schools failure. That is the case in many of our Boston Schools.

    Dr. Coleman said, “conversation needs to focus on how you make sure parents have access to schools that we’d all want to send our kids to.” If this is the real agenda of the Assignment Panel, then they should suggest that the money, now allocated for busing, be directed toward instituting in-school support systems in direct service to students. Eliminating busing, and returning to neighborhood schools, should not be a windfall to the City of Boston.

    That said, will Boston University step-up and make the commitment to retrain these bus drivers for support positions in our schools? Mayor Menino that will even give Boston University up to 50% of “community service credit,” on the 25% municipal service fee B.U. owes the taxpayers of Boston! That’s only 12.5% for municipal services! What a deal!

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