Should Burlington schoolchildren attend the elementary school closest to their home or be bussed across the city to achieve demographic balance?
That question was hotly debated in 2008 when the city considered how to deal with lopsided poverty rates at its six elementary schools. After a slew of community meetings, the Burlington school board settled on a solution aimed at achieving socioeconomic integration voluntarily: transform two high-poverty elementary schools in the Old North End into themed magnet schools, and establish a school-choice system that lets parents of elementary-age pupils rank their top three schools in order of preference.
That the choice system never became “official” school policy has reignited the debate about equity in public school education.
With the school board set to vote on a formal policy on June 7, school Commissioner Haik Bedrosian warns that approving it would be a “huge mistake.” Bedrosian, who writes the blog BurlingtonPol.com, argues that the policy as written would destabilize neighborhoods by eliminating the guarantee that kids will attend the elementary school within walking distance. He contends it could lead to shipping kids across town to meet diversity goals, even when doing so is not in the pupil’s best interest.
“If we make this change, expectant parents cannot have any assurance of what school their baby will eventually attend,” Bedrosian writes on his blog. “It will depend on whatever procedure the superintendent comes up with five years down the road.”
Bedrosian insists he’s not “against socioeconomic integration” but does oppose “forced” integration.
“When Burlington School District assumes the power to push people around, the ones that are going to get pushed around are the poor people,” he says. “Having rules that everyone understands — the school boundaries — is the key to fairness.”
Bedrosian has proposed a policy alternative that he says would preserve the predictability of geographic student placement and protect the rights of parents by making the “welfare of the pupil” the primary consideration for moving students outside their neighborhood elementary school. Whether he can persuade any colleagues to vote for it remains to be seen.
School Commissioner Amy Werbel rejects Bedrosian’s characterization of Burlington’s version of school choice. She says the proposed policy merely codifies the long-standing practice — and that Bedrosian’s dire predictions have failed to materialize in the three years it’s been in place. Werbel, who is resigning her post this month to go to China on a Fulbright scholarship, says the choice system has been effective and popular with parents. Rejecting the proposed policy would result in “a huge undoing of the work of three years,” she warns.
At a meeting of the school board’s agenda committee last week, Werbel sought to remind Bedrosian why the school district instituted the change in the first place.
“It used to be that a kid woke up in the morning and their address determined what school they went to,” Werbel says. “They lived in a terrible housing situation, they went to school with 97 percent poverty. We ended that. We’ve determined that demographically unbalanced schools are bad for children.”
Bedrosian and Werbel agree on one thing: Having a school placement system in practice that isn’t official policy could open the district to lawsuits.
Currently, Burlington parents rank their top three choices for elementary schools. Superintendent Jeanne Collins says that 90 percent of students get their first choice, while the remainder attend second-choice schools. Collins claims it’s a vast improvement over the old system, where students were simply assigned to another school — without any say in the matter — if their neighborhood elementary was overenrolled.
Poverty levels at Burlington’s elementary schools, as measured by the number of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch, are all over the map. Districtwide, the average is around 50 percent. At Champlain Elementary School, in the more affluent South End, the poverty rate is around 35 percent. In the poorer Old North End, the poverty rates at the Sustainability Academy at Lawrence Barnes and Integrated Arts Academy at H.O. Wheeler climb to 75 percent — and that’s down considerably from where they were two years ago.
Last year, space constraints at Champlain School meant 17 families had to send their kindergarteners to the Integrated Arts Academy in the Old North End. When Champlain numbers declined to a point where Champlain could take them back, none of the families chose that option, Collins says.
In the three years since Burlington instituted its new student-placement rules, Collins says no pupil has been placed into a school purely to achieve socioeconomic balance. But she acknowledges it could happen.
“In our current practice, we prioritize requests of parents by siblings in school, proximity, and third is socioeconomic balance,” Collins explains. “Yes, there is a possibility we have to say no to somebody, either because of capacity or because the demographics are out of balance … That hasn’t been an issue yet.”