In Boston, unlike in most Massachusetts communities, members of the school committee are appointed by the mayor. The theory is that with power centralized in City Hall, there’s a clear line of accountability: Since the mayor ultimately calls the shots, he’s responsible for results in the Boston Public Schools ― full stop.
That model works, though, only if voters and other elected officials actually hold mayors accountable for Boston’s still-troubled schools, instead of letting education fade into the background during election years. So it was especially refreshing to see District 4 city councilor and potential mayoral candidate Andrea Campbell make pointed criticisms last week of the gaps in Mayor Marty Walsh’s record, forcing the mayor’s office to mount a detailed defense and thrusting Bostonians’ festering unhappiness with the schools out into the open.
If the exchange is a taste of what’s to come next year, then public education is poised to take the front-burner position it deserves heading into the 2021 election. Political leaders are starting to talk with more candor about the uneven quality of the city’s schools, which should spur discussion of the tough choices needed to improve them.
The back-and-forth started on Jan. 7, after Walsh’s State of the City speech, when he announced $100 million of new investment in “direct classroom funding” for the school district to be phased in over the next three years.
Campbell wasn’t impressed and, in a statement, called out the news as part of a “disturbing pattern of flashy announcements that feature big dollar figures, but never change the dynamic for children and families.” On Twitter, she wrote: “In order to ensure every family has access to a quality BPS school, we need more than announcements & money thrown at the problem.”
Campbell’s strong words about the troubling state of the Boston schools reflect widespread and justified disappointment over the lack of progress at closing persistent achievement gaps in the system, which consistently produces sub-par results for black and Latino students.
Last year, roughly 42 percent of Boston schools that receive a grade from the state were shown to require assistance and intervention; a third of them are in the bottom 10 percent statewide. The annual dropout rate increased, while chronic absenteeism worsened. It’s no wonder the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education recently launched a comprehensive review of the Boston system, which could result in the state taking control of the city’s schools.
Campbell’s criticism was blunt. “Roughly 80 percent of students in downtown Boston attend high-quality schools, compared with only 5 percent of students in Mattapan,” she wrote. That’s based on a 2018 district-commissioned report that found that the assignment system is keeping many kindergarten students of color out of the best schools, while the vast majority of their peers in Charlestown, the Back Bay, Beacon Hill, and central Boston have access to those schools. “Nearly 4 out of 10 non-exam school students will not graduate from high school,” the statement went on. In an interview, Campbell said she’s “frustrated with the lack of urgency and responsiveness . . . as well as a lack of acknowledgment that some parts of the district are doing well and some other parts are not.”
Six years into his mayoralty, Walsh owns those numbers. Granted, education policy is a political minefield — just remember the backlash when BPS tried to adjust school start times — but that’s no excuse.
Asked for comment after Campbell’s remarks, BPS Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said in an interview that she gets and shares Campbell’s sense of urgency. She said she views the state’s review of BPS as a gift for a new superintendent like her because it will serve as another set of eyes on the schools. “I didn’t come here to kind of tinker around the edges," she said. Cassellius added she wants BPS to adopt MassCORE, the state’s curriculum framework that Boston has resisted embracing out of fear that it will hurt graduation rates. On Wednesday, she rolled out a five-year draft plan that would include full implementation of universal pre-K but was mostly lacking in details.
If you ask Bostonians what issues they care about most in the city, you’ll probably hear angry rants about the T, the high cost of housing, and the unequal access to good schools. Of the three, education is perhaps where strong and effective mayoral leadership can make the most difference. Walsh has had some recent wins, including placing a full-time nurse in every school and hiring more mental health counselors. Hopefully, the infusion of money he announced in the State of the City will have an impact. Campbell, if she runs, will have to go beyond diagnosing problems to offering specific solutions. But for now, the real talk about public schools is welcome — and critical for holding Walsh accountable in his second term.