Panel Paper: Evaluating Equity in Boston Public Schools’ School Choice and Assignment System: How Do Assumptions Undermine Aspirations of Equity?

Thursday, November 8, 2018
Lincoln 3 - Exhibit Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Daniel T. O'Brien1, Nancy Hill2, Mariah Contreras3,4 and Guido Sidoni1,4, (1)Northeastern University, (2)Harvard University, (3)Tufts University, (4)Boston Area Research Initiative

Many American cities suffer from de facto residential segregation along lines of race and class, and their school districts have long struggled to find ways to mitigate this segregation in their schools. A common solution is the creation of school choice and assignment policies that enable students to submit a list of schools from across the city that then creates assignments based on a lottery. Such systems, however, result in a need for an extensive amount of transportation, which is burdensome both for the district’s finances and for the families whose children must travel long distances daily. In 2014, Boston, MA sought to reengineer its school choice and assignment system to attend to these challenges. The resulting Home-Based Assignment Plan (HBAP) was a thoughtfully-crafted attempt to provide parents with increased access to good schools, close to home, especially for those students with the lowest level of access. In theory, this would decrease travel distances while also safeguarding against the inequities that are inherent to a residentially-segregated city. The system guaranteed each student a “choice basket” from which they could select schools with a minimum number of high-quality schools (i.e., the two nearest top-tier schools; based on Massachusetts standardized tests).

Now that HBAP has been in effect for four years, Boston Public Schools (BPS) and the Boston Area Research Initiative (BARI) have partnered to evaluate the extent to which HBAP was successful in its goals of creating 1) more equitable access, 2) more equitable assignment to schools closer to home, and 3) having neighbors be more likely to attend the same school while maintaining geographic and racial diversity within schools. The evaluation has entailed an analysis of choice baskets granted to families, choice submissions made by families, and enrollments for both the three years preceding and following HBAP’s implementation. Substantively, BPS and BARI have decided to focus particularly on potential weaknesses baked into the algorithms that HBAP uses to generate choice baskets. First, equitable access is based on numbers of high-quality schools, not number of high-quality seats nor competition for those high-quality seats, potentially creating a false impressions of equity. Second, distance to school was based on Euclidean distance (i.e., “as the crow flies”) and not on actual distance or time traveled, leading us to use Google Maps API to better estimate the effort required by a family to transport to and from school. Third, the system conflates inclusion of high-quality schools in a choice basket, regardless of distance from home, with perceived ability to attend those schools on the part of the family. Fourth, the implementation of HBAP and other school choice and assignment systems do not account for how family preferences will interact with the system to create emergent outcomes. The talk will examine each of these considerations and their consequences for equity.