Commentary: We need a voter-chosen school committee that is accountable to the families it serves

On Jan. 22, the Boston Foundation released “Kids Today: Boston’s Declining Child Population and Its Effect on School Enrollment,” a study that detailed not only the decrease of school-aged children in our city’s schools, but also the alarming trends of increasing racial and economic segregation.

The authors found that 77 percent of black students and 64 percent of Latinx students attend “intensely segregated” schools where 90 percent of the student population is of the same race. Over the past 20 years, students from low-income families have become increasingly concentrated in schools with other disadvantaged children.

As the panel discussion began, Bill Forry of the Dorchester Reporter reflected on the “deeply flawed” and sometimes “sinister” decisions of the white leaders of the 1960s and 1970s that resulted in patterns of behavior that continue to influence the policies and outcomes of our schools and housing development. “We are getting the city that we planned,” he said.

The panel, which also included Yawu Miller of the Bay State Banner, Monica Roberts from Boston Public Schools, and Shannah Varón from the Boston Collegiate Charter School, covered local and national policies that have contributed to fewer students and more segregation in our schools. Court-ordered desegregation, declining birth rates, and gentrification were among the factors considered. 

The fascinating conversation had one glaring omission: the actions of the Boston School Committee. Perhaps because everyone in the room understood that the appointed board is merely an extension of the mayor’s long and powerful arm, they were considered neither part of the problem nor part of the solution. And yet this policy-making body approved the current Home-Based Assignment Plan in 2013 – a color-blind method of student assignment that does not strive to address racial and socioeconomic inequities within its framework.

To rephrase Bill Forry’s opening remarks: We are getting the school district that we planned.

When the School Committee considered the home-based plan as a replacement for the three-zone system created under federal court supervision 25 years earlier, the move was met with resistance from many parents and civil rights groups concerned that it would exacerbate the city’s inequities rather than ameliorate them. School committee member John Barros, who cast the lone dissenting vote, shared this concern. Acknowledging that the outcomes of the new assignment plan were difficult to predict, the school committee adopted the system with the stipulation that an independent equity analysis would be performed after one year.

In 2018 – five years later – the Boston Area Research Initiative released an evaluation that showed the predictions of critics were right. Children living in neighborhoods with higher concentrations of black and brown students were experiencing significantly greater competition for open seats than their white counterparts. As many had warned, the algorithm doesn’t adjust for available seats. 

How could this assignment plan have passed, and then stayed in place without being questioned for years? Why did the School Committee ignore its own recommendation for an equity analysis? Why haven’t they addressed fatal flaws in the system that block black and brown children from equal access to quality schools?

Because the students and families harmed by the home-based plan have no actual representation on the committee, and because the current system benefits the most affluent – and powerful – parents in the city, the committee represents only one person – the mayor.

We are now almost three decades into our radical experiment in school governance that disbanded the elected school committee and replaced it with one appointed by the mayor. Boston is the only municipality in the Commonwealth with an appointed board, which arguably has disenfranchised the parent community and failed to equitably educate all of our children.

In the face of overwhelming evidence that despite decades of struggle we are still operating a separate and unequal school district, where is the empathy or any action from our appointed school committee? From Reconstruction to Jim Crow, from the civil rights movement to mass incarceration, and now from integration to warehousing our black and brown children in under-supported schools, this pattern of reform and regression has worn an all too familiar path.

In 1996, Hubie Jones – one of the architects of the appointed school committee – said, “We’ll go back to an elected school committee someday, because these things are cyclical.” 

Is it time to close the loop of this cycle and rejoin the other cities and towns in Massachusetts by electing a school committee that is accountable to the families it serves?

Kristin Johnson is a BPS parent, a member of the Boston Coalition for Education Equity, and a blogger at

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