Boston Public School Assignment Proposals Analysis

School assignment alternatives: Analysis and recommendations

MAPC reviewed the school assignment proposals currently before Boston's External Advisory Committee on School Choice (EAC). These proposals include two “Zone-Based” plans (10-Zone and 11-Zone) that would allow each student to choose from any schools in their zone or any school within a mile, even if in another zone.

The “Home-Based” plans (“A” and “B”) give students a choice of all schools within a mile of their home and additional higher-quality schools beyond that distance. All three alternatives include citywide schools, an ELL overlay, and a Students with Disabilities overlay.

We recommend that the EAC adopt one of the Home-Based plans, which provide equity of access to quality comparable to or better than the current system, while reducing median travel distance by 40%.

Both home-based plans would achieve these objectives, but with a different balance of proximity and choice. We chose not to recommend either plan A or B over the other, but outline below the factors that the EAC might consider as it seeks to strike its preferred balance. Given the emphasis on proximity in both plans, the walk zone priority is arguably redundant, and we strongly advise against any increase in the set-aside.

Furthermore, we suggest the EAC recommend no change in the processing order for applications, leaving the current algorithm “as-is” until a new system is in place for two years. During this period, the School Department and its partners should evaluate the impact of the new assignment system on both parental choice and student assignment.

Download MAPC's Analysis and Recommendations to the EAC

Key findings of our analysis that led us to support the home-based plans include:

  • All the plans would substantially reduce travel distance.
  • Both zone-based plans would substantially reduce equity of access to quality schools when compared to the status quo.
  • Home-Based plans will most effectively eliminate the current phenomenon of students travelling long distances to attend low-quality schools.
  • Home-Based plans ensure that neighboring children have similar lists of schools to from which to choose.
  • The Home-Based plans are flexible and can adapt over time. When quality schools can be found throughout the city, everyone's choices will be nearby.
The Geography of Choice under Zone-Based and Home-Based Assignment Plans

MAPC compared patterns of school availability for the zone-based and home-based plans and found that home-based plans results in much more gradual changes in the "choice basket" for students, whereas zone-based plans result in large discontinuities in choices across zone boundaries, potentially discouraging the community-building that smaller zones is intended to engender. 

See MAPC's presentation on this issue to the External Advisory Committee on School Choice:

Prior Research

In October 2012, MAPC analyzed the initial round of assignment plans proposed by Boston Public Schools (BPS) using data available from the BPS website as well as the School Quality Index developed by the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE).

MAPC analyzed current attendance patterns; assessed the relative change in opportunity for students in proposed zones; and estimated the potential impact of each alternative on children of different races and ethnicities.

Download MAPC's comparative analysis of BPS-proposed assignment plans 

October 26 updated analysis by race/ethnicity: MAPC prepared a supplemental report that provides more context and explanation for the analysis, while also acknowledging the many remaining unknown factors.

Download MAPC's October 26 Supplemental Report on impacts by race and ethnicity. 

Key Findings:

1. The existing three-zone system is already highly unequal and segregated in a variety of ways.

Attendance at higher quality schools varies substantially across each zone, with students in some neighborhoods much more likely to attend lower quality schools than their counterparts elsewhere in the same zone. 

Students in predominately Black, Hispanic, or low-income neighborhoods are less likely to attend high quality schools, but not necessarily because they are attending lower-performing schools in their neighborhood.

Black and Hispanic students—even those attending “low quality” schools—travel substantially farther to school than do White and Asian students.  Unfortunately, these longer commutes, averaging more than 1.5 miles each way, are less likely to deliver them to a high performing school.

2. The effects of the assignment zone alternatives are complex.

We compared current attendance patterns at high and medium quality schools to the opportunities that would be available in each proposed assignment zone and found very mixed results. In some zones the access to “high” or “medium” quality schools might represent an improvement over current attendance patterns; in other areas, the new zones might reduce access to such seats relative to current attendance at higher quality schools. These impacts are quite variable across the various alternatives and across the zones. Also, the difference between zones with improved access and those with reduced access becomes more dramatic as the number of zones increases, i.e., the distance between "winning zones" and "losing zones" becomes more extreme.  It should be noted that this analysis does not yet account for walk zone opportunities, which are currently being evaluated by MAPC.

3. Access to “high-” and “medium” quality schools could improve modestly for Black students relative to current attendance patterns, if they have equitable attendance at the higher quality schools in their new zone. The same is true for Hispanics under three of the four alternatives. Access to higher quality schools could decline for Whites and Asians, compared to current attendance patterns. When compared to the opportunities that the current 3-zone system might provide if there were no disparities within the zones, only the 6-zone proposal would provide better access for Blacks and Hispanics. However, this analysis does not yet account for the influence of walk zone and parental preference, and these results should not be considered definitive until those factors have been incorporated.  MAPC is actively working on that effort. 

MAPC developed these findings using a database linking student characteristics and school performance data to each of the geocodes and proposed zones.

Additional areas of inquiry might include assessment of racial and economic isolation; evaluation of lottery preference patterns; and inclusion of walk zone schools in the analysis of future access.

We welcome suggestions for additional research questions that will help support an informed, equitable, and productive dialogue about alternative assignment plans. 


For more information, please contact Planning Research Manager Tim Reardon at or 617-933-0718.