THE BOSTON School Committee will vote this week on a plan to overhaul its broken system for assigning students to schools, a complicated lottery-based maze that for years has been a source of frustration, waste, and despair.
Scores of protesters at a Boston School Committee meeting in 2009. The city's dysfunctional school-assignment system has long been a source of conflict, anxiety, and waste.
Only a masochist could love the existing arrangement, whose Kafkaesque dysfunction was dissected in a Boston Globe series in 2011. The scale of that dysfunction could be inferred from its effect on a single city block.
Thanks to the school-assignment rules, the Globe found, the 19 children living on Montvale Street in Roslindale were forced to travel a combined 182 miles daily – by car, by bus, and on foot – in order to attend 15 different schools. Multiplied by hundreds of blocks and tens of thousands of children, Boston's system of matching students to schools is financially expensive, physically exhausting, and emotionally draining; it seems almost designed to ensure that few Boston parents are able to send their children to high-quality public schools near where they live.
Would the new plan be an improvement? According to Superintendent Carol Johnson, it will mark "a bold and welcome step forward," one that "finally connects the dots between choice and quality" and, after decades of failure, "puts a priority on helping students attend quality schools close to home."
Sure it will. And then Johnson and Mayor Thomas Menino will team up to win the next season of "Dancing with the Stars."
The proposal being voted on this week, after a year of assessment and scores of public meetings, would scrap the quarter-century-old setup that divides Boston into three vast student-assignment zones.
Instead, as the Globe reports, "a complex algorithm would generate a list of schools from which parents could choose based on a variety of factors, such as distance from school, school capacity, and MCAS performance." For each student, families would be given at least six schools to pick from, four of which would be no worse than of middling quality. But since many Boston students don't live anywhere near a decent public school, the plan acknowledges that the number of schools on their family's list "could be many more."
The question we should be asking isn't whether government officials in Boston have finally figured out a better way to assign students to schools. It is why anyone still imagines that something as crucial as children's schooling should be controlled by government officials in the first place.
In what other area are parents so passive? Children need to be fed as much as they need to be schooled. Indeed, even more so: Eating is a matter of life and death. Yet ordinary mothers and fathers somehow manage to meet that grave responsibility without the benefit of a government-approved plan that divides the city into "grocery-assignment zones" and tells each household where it may shop. Kids also need to be clothed, yet when was the last time city officials had to devise a "complex algorithm" that would "finally connect the dots between choice and quality" so that parents could provide growing children with shirts, pants, and shoes?
"Public education is the Soviet agriculture of American life," Charles Murray once wrote. When it comes to the myriad goods and services produced by the private sector – from cars to coffee to computers – not only are supplies plentiful, but quality, convenience, and innovation are routine. But when it comes to government-run schools, which are dominated by politics and guaranteed a captive customer base, the blessings of competition are all but unknown.
The problem with public schools, in Boston and elsewhere, is government compulsion. Soviet citizens learned the hard way what to expect when government runs the farms and operates the grocery stores: long lines, poor quality, empty shelves. Why should we expect anything different from public education? Government runs the schools, hires the teachers, sets the curriculum – and assigns the students. Of course the result is dysfunction and controversy.
What Boston's public schools need isn't a better top-down plan. It isn't a new, more complex algorithm. They need to be liberated. The education of children – like the clothing and feeding of children – should be entrusted to parents, not to politicians. Government education should be as unthinkable as government religion. Separation of church and state is a cardinal American value. Why haven't we figured out by now that separation of school and state should be too?
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)
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