The last time that “busing” was a buzzword around Boston, John Havlicek and Jo Jo White were the only ebony-and-ivory cronies shooting hoops in harmony. It was the 1970s, and race riots threatened downtown amity for months at a time. Black schools in Roxbury were toxic bastions of physical abuse, and in white South Boston, they weren’t much better. Busing, though it did ultimately help integrate schools, was to some degree like rearranging deck chairs on a sinking ship.
But if busing was once a racial divider that tore the city asunder and brought it unwanted national attention, it’s now a racial unifier that promises to incite a political dogfight. A new chapter in Boston’s busing saga is surfacing front and center as the 2009 City Council and mayoral bouts approach. And this time — since the race issue is largely off the table — folks of all shades and ideologies are arguing that Boston needs to end the costly current practice of allowing families to choose schools within designated school zones (known as “school choice”) once and for all.
The busing gates have been re-opened, ironically, by Boston Architectural College President Ted Landsmark — a guiding voice on education who may be best known as the black victim of an American flag–wielding white thug on City Hall Plaza in a Pulitzer Prize–winning photograph from 1976. In a January 31, 2009, Boston Globe op-ed, the former integration poster boy called for an end to zone busing. He contends (and Boston Public Schools Chief Communications Officer Chris Horan acknowledges) that the switch could save $40 million of 2010’s projected $72 million transportation budget. Since the current student population comprises 87 percent minority students, Landsmark argues: “Busing students from one neighborhood to another does nothing to change the racial, cultural, and caste demographics of classrooms, while devouring financial resources that could be better spent on teaching and learning.”
For constituents of all races who voiced aggravation at three recent school committee hearings — as well as for Bostonians rapping about budget cuts on message boards and at community meetings — the rationale is simple: if the ultimatum yields the choice of either cutting teachers or putting the brakes on busing, then the latter must be done immediately. The school committee, however, seems unwilling to budge, no matter how many millions a cold-turkey break from busing could save.
In 2004, Boston Mayor Tom Menino and then-superintendent Thomas Payzant established the School Assignment Task Force to study and evaluate Boston’s school-busing conundrum. Staffed with community, education, and transportation leaders of mixed backgrounds from across the city — including Landsmark as co-chairman — the commission faced the unenviable challenge of advising ways to trim transportation costs while ensuring that all students have equal access to first-class education. They suggested several improvements, but left implementation to the mayor and school board.
Nearly five years later, significant task-force recommendations have not been advanced. And now that schools are suddenly confronting a $107 million budget gap that threatens programs, resources, and the jobs of more than 900 school employees, including nearly 400 classroom teachers, many critics are insisting that re-zoning models, such as the one proposed by current Superintendent Carol Johnson this past week, won’t come nearly close enough to reducing the budget shortfall. The plan pitched by Johnson — just four days after Landsmark’s editorial (a coincidence, according to Horan) — would split Boston into five zones (instead of the current three), within which K–8 and special-needs students would be bussed.
Some say a five-zone approach would be another band-aid on bleeding bullet wounds. At a February 5 South End community hearing at the Blackstone School, one Hurley School parent, barely withholding tears, scolded Johnson and others: “I want the school committee and city councilors to stand up and say that busing is no longer necessary.” Another Hurley father added: “Quite frankly, this proposal is ridiculous. We need to end busing right now.”
Among the outspoken are Landsmark, who originally backed his 2004 report but now believes that more extreme measures are necessary; South End businessman and mayoral hopeful Kevin McCrae; and Boston City Councilor (and newly announced mayoral candidate) Sam Yoon, who believes enough families are comfortable with their neighborhood schools to end busing as we know it. (Another mayoral hopeful, City Councilor Michael Flaherty, did not return several requests for comment; nor did Menino, who appoints the Boston School Committee.)
According to Boston Public Schools Chief Operating Officer Michael Goar, the Johnson-proposed “Phase II Schools in Five Zones Layout” will save between $5 and $10 million a year. That’s in addition to nearly $5 million in transportation savings expected to come from closing five schools, scaling back K–8 choice, locking in fuel costs, and ending busing for private and parochial students in 2010.
“Boston Public Schools started with four objectives,” Goar wrote in an e-mail to the Phoenix regarding Johnson’s five-zone proposal. “Create walkable communities; provide continuity of educational experience; preserve a range of school choice; reduce transportation costs.”