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School panel did us a service

The mayorally appointed task force charged with coming up with a new system for assigning students to the city’s schools has finished its work. The External Advisory Committee (EAC) came to a broad consensus that a new system designed to give families a minimum of six choices near their homes— along with a menu of citywide options—is the best course forward. If approved, as expected, by the School Committee next month, the revised system will go into service for the 2014-15 academic year.

As we noted a year ago when they were appointed, “Even the most able collection of volunteers… will have a tough time meeting the challenge put in front of them by the mayor, who laid down an ambitious pledge to create a ‘radically different’ assignment plan in his State of the City address last month.”

This group did indeed encounter some tough times and the result is one that will not satisfy everyone on the spectrum of opinion regarding the future of Boston’s schools. Many are justifiably concerned that the assignment mechanism is just one, albeit huge, piece in a massive system that needs a more substantive overhaul. We agree with that assessment.

But the EAC was not charged with solving all of the woes of the BPS in one fell swoop. It was asked to look specifically at the question of how to improve the assignment system. And, from this vantage point, the EAC is to be commended for navigating us through a rigorous and politically charged conversation about how to better assign children to city schools.

Even some members of the EAC expressed surprise that the final tally for the Home-Based A option enjoyed such a clear majority, garnering 20 votes from the 27 member committee. Members of the EAC— including several from Dorchester— said that at times the vote loomed as one that could break down along racial lines or that there would be no clear path forward in recommending an alternative to the present, unpopular three-zone system.

But new technologies and data at hand helped drive the consensus that had proved elusive in past deliberations. The school department helped matters by posting maps of various proposals that allowed parents and activists to respond quickly and decisively to scenarios that seemed out of step with the mayor’s directive to steer the city toward a neighborhood school model.

While imperfect, the Home-Based Model offers more predictability for parents entering the BPS system and gives current BPS families the security they have asked for by grandfathering pupils into the schools they presently attend. This option gives parents a minimum of six close-to-home options while also allowing for citywide choices and maintaining a one-mile walk-zone. The Home-Based A plan also incorporates the concept of ‘compacting’— which will allow parents to join forces and work on improving quality in targeted schools.

These are common-sense innovations that will make the assignment process more palatable to many parents. Helen Dajer, the co-chair of the panel that made the recommendation on Monday, called it a “huge dramatic, and bold move” that she expects will cut the distance students will have to travel by at least a third. It would have been better if a consensus around a new system had been formed and executed earlier in his tenure. But this EAC and his administration deserve credit for tackling the complicated and potentially divisive issue in a thoughtful and constructive way.We hope and expect that the school department will follow suit in their implementation efforts.

– Bill Forry