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Changing the Boston School Choice Mechanism:  Strategy-proofness as Equal Access

Why Change School Choice Mechanisms?

School Assignment, May 2006

In a closer exam­i­na­tion of the school choice mech­a­nism pre­vi­ously used by Boston Public Schools, Abdulkadiroglu, Pathak, Roth, and Sönmez estab­lish an empir­i­cal case against the pre­vi­ous Boston mech­a­nism in favor of a change to a strategy-proof mech­a­nism.  While some par­ents use sophis­ti­cated strate­gic behav­ior, oth­ers dis­play unso­phis­ti­cated strate­gic behav­ior.  Without know­ing the true pref­er­ences of a fam­ily, there arises a mis­take caus­ing fam­i­lies to be dis­pro­por­tion­ately unassigned.

The  Boston School Committee voted to replace the exist­ing school choice mech­a­nism (the Boston mech­a­nism) with an alter­na­tive mech­a­nism that removes the incen­tives to “game the sys­tem.” This fol­lowed two years of inten­sive dis­cus­sion and analy­sis of the exist­ing school choice sys­tem and the behav­ior it elicited, as well as a dis­cus­sion of two dif­fer­ent pos­si­ble replace­ment school choice mechanisms.

The Boston expe­ri­ence has impli­ca­tions for other school dis­tricts.  There are quite a few other school dis­tricts with stu­dent assign­ment sys­tems shar­ing the main fea­tures of the Boston mech­a­nism – for exam­ple Cambridge, Charlotte-Mecklenberg, Denver, Miami-Dade, Rochester, Tampa-St. Petersburg, and White Plains. Based on our analy­sis of the behav­ior of Boston fam­i­lies, it seems likely that in these other school dis­tricts par­ents are faced with solv­ing a com­plex strate­gic prob­lem, rather than just a prob­lem of form­ing pref­er­ences over schools. A strategy-proof mech­a­nism like the ones pre­sented in this study would lift this strate­gic bur­den from par­ents, and makes the school choice process more trans­par­ent. School choice is often a sen­si­tive polit­i­cal issue, and trans­parency helps to remove some aspects of how to best assign chil­dren to schools from the polit­i­cal arena to the tech­ni­cal arena, and clar­ify which issues remain to be set­tled by the polit­i­cal process. There will always be such issues, since until there are enough top qual­ity school places to sat­isfy all fam­i­lies, some aspects of school choice will be a dis­trib­u­tive process, with only some stu­dents able to gain admis­sion to the most desir­able schools.