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The Boston Globe

Opinion

LAWRENCE HARMON

Schools need justice, not kindness

JOHN TLUMACKI/globe staff

Embattled Boston school superintendent Carol Johnson is greeted by a well-wisher at a rally supporting for at the Bethel AME Church in Jamaica Plain last Saturday.

When it comes to interweaving politics and religion, few can match the skills of Boston’s black ministers. Last Saturday, more than 200 people pressed into Bethel AME Church in Jamaica Plain to support embattled school superintendent Carol Johnson. It was billed as a rally. But it was more a religious service from the moment a group of 10 ministers laid hands on Johnson and prayed for her to be lifted above the current fray. Johnson was dressed in a white suit, a symbol of purity and redemption.

Johnson’s “sin” was her failure to discipline a former high school headmaster after he was arrested and admitted to choking and punching his wife. Recent disclosure of the case followed earlier revelations about Johnson’s poor handling of student transportation, school closings, and other operational issues. That prompted City Councilor John Connolly and some parents to call for her ouster.

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The city’s prominent black ministers, politicians, and educators are drawing Johnson tightly to their bosom. This is an impressive show of support in a city where raising the academic achievement of minority children takes on aspects of a spiritual quest. It’s no accident that Mayor Menino chose a minister — Rev. Gregory Groover — to head the city’s appointed school board. Or that the words of the prophets — not the jargon of educational theorists — now ring out in Johnson’s defense.

“You have been in the thickets of the Jordan,’’ said Rev. LaTrelle Miller Easterling of the Union United Methodist Church as she offered succor to the school superintendent.

Nearly 9 out of 10 of the school district’s students are minorities, many with families rooted in the tradition of the black church. That church teaches that God is deeply involved in human affairs. There is little room in this belief system for a remote or impassive deity. And no room whatsoever for a detached school superintendent, which explains much of Johnson’s popularity.

“Anytime we call upon her, she responds enthusiastically,’’ said Rev. Arthur Gerald of the Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury. “Our children will be lost without her.’’

Speakers and supporters evoked loving images of a superintendent who squeezes into a tiny chair to engage face-to-face with kindergartners or brokers peace with a former fiscal enemy — the charter school movement — because of its stellar record of educating low-income, minority children.

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The superintendent’s supporters also place great stock in Johnson’s public apology for failing to discipline the violent headmaster. It would be unthinkable, in their view, to oust her after such an act of contrition. Turning their backs on Johnson now would be like disavowing the central message of Christian belief — forgiveness.

But will this spirit of forgiveness yield academic improvement in the city’s school system? Does it even set the right tone? Not really. Public institutions run best on a strict accountability model, not one that emphasizes loving kindness.

Last year, a school principal at the King K-8 school failed to notify state child welfare experts — as required — following allegations that a special education aide had inappropriate contact with a student. The King principal concluded on her own that it didn’t warrant further investigation. A few months later, the aide was charged with molesting a student at another school. School Committee member Mary Tamer called for the removal of the King principal. Instead, Johnson suspended the principal for a few weeks without pay.

In this case, as in Johnson’s treatment of the domestic violence case, compassion for the victim came second. That’s the definition of injustice. And no number of testimonials can change that.

Throughout her career, Johnson has emphasized the importance of providing every student with access to a good teacher. In the coming months, she and the city’s teachers’ union will have to come to terms on a new teacher evaluation method that assures such quality. But how much patience should principals be expected to show before steering ineffective teachers out of the classroom? And how much patience should be shown to principals who use the evaluation process to play favorites or undermine good teachers for reasons that have nothing to do with classroom performance? Under the “compassion for all” model of the Boston schools, the answer would be too much.

Maybe what the city’s school system needs is more justice, and less compassion.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.

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