BOSTON -- Nearly four decades after this city was convulsed by violence over court-ordered busing to desegregate its public schools, Boston is working to reduce its reliance on busing in a school system that is now made up largely of minority students.
Although court-ordered busing ended more than two decades ago, and only 13 percent of students in the public schools today are white, the school district buses 64 percent of its students in kindergarten through eighth grade to schools outside their immediate neighborhoods. The city tried twice in the last decade to change the system and failed both times.
"Children are being bused now because they have been bused for 40 years and no one has had the political courage to dismantle it," said Lawrence DiCara, a former Boston city councilor who supported busing in the 1970s and is writing a book about the city in that era. "Now, there are no white kids to be integrated. Everyone is being randomly bused. It doesn't make sense."
In January, Mayor Thomas M. Menino asked school officials to come up with "a radically different plan" under which students would be assigned to schools as close to home as possible.
Boston's 57,000-student school district is divided into three sprawling geographic zones. A racially blind computerized algorithm assigns students to schools anywhere within their zone. Many students go so far that transportation alone costs the city $80.4 million a year -- about 9.4 percent of the school system's operating budget, almost twice the national average.
But expense is not the only concern. Children who live on the same block often go to different schools. In the violence-torn Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood of Dorchester, school officials said, 1,912 students attend 102 schools out of 128 schools in the entire district. These include high school students, who are not limited by zone.
Under such a hodgepodge, the mayor and others argue, fewer people in a neighborhood are invested in the local school. And neither children nor parents develop the bonds that create a strong neighborhood and can improve other aspects of life, like public safety.
The Boston School Department responded last week with five new proposals showing how the district could be carved up to meet the mayor's goal. School officials are holding public meetings now with parents to get feedback, and the Boston School Committee intends to vote on a final recommendation in December. Mr. Menino, who, having assumed office in 1993, is the longest-serving mayor in city history and is expected to seek re-election next year, wants a new plan in place for the academic year beginning in 2014.
In discussions about the new proposals, the city's painful history is never far from the surface.
Chris Kollett, 38, a parent who attended a meeting with school officials last week to learn more about the new plans, said that the racial violence of the past was a subtext of conversations now about the schools' future.
"We very much see the tension between advocating for your own child and advocating for the greater good," he said. "It becomes a very uncomfortable conversation, and what happened 40 years ago is just kind of looming out there."
The fiery protests that followed a federal judge's 1974 order to bus white children to black schools and vice versa branded Boston as a symbol of Northern racism. The upheaval was all the more embarrassing for a city that had prided itself on being the birthplace of public education in this country -- the Puritans founded the first public school, Boston Latin, here in 1635.
But the city of today is very different from the one of the late 1960s and '70s, when dictates to achieve racial balance first prompted "white flight" from the public schools. From 1967 to 1974, the percentage of white students in the city's public schools plunged to 52 percent from 72 percent. By 1977, black students outnumbered whites; by 2009, Latinos outnumbered blacks.
Today, Latinos account for 42 percent of the public school population; blacks account for 35 percent and Asians 8 percent. Whites make up about 47 percent of the city population but only 13 percent of the public school population.
Many of the prominent players who inflamed passions in the 1970s busing drama are gone too. W. Arthur Garrity Jr., the federal judge who issued the 1974 desegregation order and presided over the schools for more than a decade, died in 1999. Louise Day Hicks, who, as the chairwoman of the Boston School Committee from largely white South Boston, became the face of ferocious opposition to busing, died in 2003.
But some who lived through that period say the central problem now is the same as it was then -- the dearth of good schools.
"We want quality schools, whether they are across the street or across town," said Kim M. Janey, senior project director for Massachusetts Advocates for Children, who, as a child in Boston, was bused into a white neighborhood.
"A plan that limits choice and that is strictly neighborhood-based gets us to a system that is more segregated than it is now," she said.
The new proposals and quick timetable have sent parents scrambling to try to comprehend them. They come with a large set of variables, forcing parents to consider multiple trade-offs that make the evaluation process as complex as three-dimensional chess.
For example, under a proposal that would eliminate all zones, the average distance traveled to school would shrink to a quarter of a mile from one and a half miles. But because housing is still so segregated in parts of the city, the poorest children would remain in some of the worst schools.
Indeed, an analysis of the five models prepared by a team from the Harvard Graduate School of Education said that all models would create more disparity, not less, than the current system in affording access to high quality schools.
Meira Levinson, an associate professor of education who oversaw the analysis, said it was based on data from the school district and was somewhat imprecise. Still, she said, it was clear that the fundamental problem was too few good schools.
"This can't be about whether we're equal in distributing the relatively few quality seats we have," Professor Levinson said. "It must be about increasing the number of quality seats we have."
But the biggest complaint from parents, according to school officials, is about whether their children who are happy in their current schools will be able to stay. This concern has prompted a separate group of elected officials to put forth their own proposal that would "grandfather" students into their current schools.
In response, Carol Johnson, the school district's superintendent, said school officials would also include a "robust" grandfathering plan in their final proposals. But Dr. Johnson said in an interview that she was worried that some of the proposals "could further isolate or concentrate poverty."
She said that the district had made some progress in improving underperforming schools, as reflected in higher test scores in some grades, lower dropout rates and higher graduation rates.
But over all, Dr. Johnson said, "an achievement gap remains." Recent scores show the Boston Public Schools lagging badly behind schools in the rest of the state. Her hope is to move the discussion toward future improvement and away from the troubled past. "In 1974, the focus was on getting to the school," she said. "Today it's on what is happening in the school once students arrive."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.