The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
Statement on Springfield's Boundary Plan
May 24, 2005
We have two decisions to make - one substantive and one procedural. But, depending on how we decide the procedural question, the substantive issues before us may be moot.
Before raising the procedural issue, let me first offer my view on the substance of the district's so-called "boundary plan."
I have long believed that parental choice must be an essential element of any serious education reform initiative. I believe that choice - rightly conceived and implemented - can help ensure that student needs are well matched to school strengths, and can create a consumer-driven stimulus for system-wide change and improvement. Equally important, I believe that there is a moral dimension to parental choice. If we really mean it when we say that parents are their children's first and most important teacher, then we must respect their role by giving them at least some voice in where their children attend school.
The plan before us today represents a step away from choice, and therefore is a step away from what I consider to be effective reform. This is in no way an endorsement of the status quo. Neighborhood schools can provide a positive influence on educational outcomes, but only if those schools are freely chosen by parents. Rather than expending energy and time reducing opportunities for parents to choose their child's school, we should be focusing all our efforts on creating more quality schools that are worth choosing. That will not happen simply by reshuffling school enrollment. In the end, what matters are not marginal changes in the demographic composition of Springfield's schools; what matters is addressing the root causes of school failure or stagnation.
As I said at the outset, however, we are also confronted with a procedural question that may trump my reservations about this plan. In the past, districts have submitted various racial balance plans to this board as a pre-requisite for receiving additional state funding, either under the so-called 636 program or school building assistance. Several years ago, both of those funding streams were eliminated. The other potential basis for our consideration of these plans is the Racial Imbalance Act. But the specific terms of the Racial Imbalance Act have long been an anachronism for most urban school districts.
Under the law, a school is considered racially imbalanced if more than 50 percent of its students are non-white. In Springfield, like many other Massachusetts cities, non-white students now comprise the overwhelming majority of district enrollment and thus all of its schools are racially imbalanced. Given this demographic reality, there is no way that Springfield's schools can become racially balanced, under the law's definition. Furthermore, the remedy required under the Racial Imbalance Act is a plan ensuring that all students in racially unbalanced schools are given the right to transfer to a school of their choice that has non-white enrollment of less than 30 percent. In a district like Springfield, this is a null set.
While we continue to have jurisdiction in cases where district demographics still fit the standards embedded in the Racial Imbalance Act, and in cases that clearly violate the general policy of the Commonwealth supporting racially diverse schools, I do not believe that this board is empowered to render an enforceable judgment on Springfield's student assignment proposal.