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TOM KEANE

In mayor’s race, hope for school reform

Mayoral hopefuls Martin Walsh (left) and John Connolly shook hands after a forum in June.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe/file

Mayoral hopefuls Martin Walsh (left) and John Connolly shook hands after a forum in June.

John Connolly has staked out his turf as the “education mayor.” But his opponent, Marty Walsh, is no slouch on the topic either. Indeed, some of his ideas go further and are more compelling.

Connolly got into the race in February, back when most thought Mayor Tom Menino was still planning to run for another term. As chair of the City Council’s education committee, he had built a reputation for himself as a schools advocate. In 2011 he made a splash when he toured several school kitchens, finding stocks of expired foods. Granted, that stunt had nothing to do with learning (or even with student health; the US Department of Agriculture says that expiration dates have little to do with food safety), but it thrust him into prominence, something he continued to build on a year later when, after a second scandal, he called for the resignation of superintendent Carol Johnson. Moms and dads with young kids were thrilled that some city pol was finally paying them attention.

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Since he first announced, Connolly has spent time fleshing out his thoughts about education, and they now make for a solid if not particularly exciting package: a lengthier school day, a heightened emphasis on arts and physical education, better principal and teacher training, and more local engagement in the running of individual schools. All of this would be welcome, and Connolly’s almost unrelenting focus on educational issues during this campaign leads one to conclude that his platform is more than just words: He intends to make schools his focus as mayor as well.

Walsh, though, seems to match Connolly in his zeal for education reform. Although he’s taken criticism from many (including me) for his deference to union wishes, that’s not the case when it comes to schools. Walsh was a founding board member of Dorchester’s Neighborhood House Charter School, and makes clear that he would support lifting the cap on charters in the city, something that hardly wins him the favor of the Boston Teachers Union. (Connolly too is a charter school supporter.) Walsh continues to see charters as a key way to spur improvements in school quality.

One of his most striking proposals, though, has to do with early education. I’ll confess to a bias here; I work for a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that develops curriculum and runs a charter school for 3- and 4-year-olds. Washington has put in place nearly universal access to early education, and Walsh talks of doing the same in Boston for at least one year of prekindergarten. He describes early education as an “equity issue,” and he’s absolutely right.

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Much of what we think of as poor education in city schools really has nothing to do with spending levels, physical plant, or teacher quality. Rather, it’s the students themselves. Even before kindergarten, there are significant differences between white and black children, rich and poor. Known as the achievement gap, it’s caused by developmental deficits that occur before the age of five and is difficult if not impossible to overcome once a child has entered grade school. Washington’s experience has been that high-quality preschool education can actually erase that gap. Doing so in Boston could be transformative.

In truth, however, the differences between Connolly and Walsh are relatively small: They both want dramatic reform. That contrasts sharply with the measured rhetoric and deeds of the man they hope to replace.

The differences between Connolly and Walsh are relatively small: They both want dramatic change.

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The pace of change has been slow under Menino, reflecting his inherent caution and preference for small, incremental improvements. But the mayor was also in tune with political reality. He valued stability and gave superintendents such as Thomas Payzant and Carol Johnson time to do their jobs. He knew as well that those invested in the current system would resist rapid change.

Moreover, innovations such as longer school days or early education cost money. Getting the needed funds means not spending on something else. And as much as education matters, it directly affects a relatively small number of people: There are more who want their streets plowed than who send their kids to Boston’s public schools. The next mayor may find keeping that larger group happy a preoccupation that pushes aside the best of intentions.

Tom Keane can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com.
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