After two failing public schools in Boston were taken over by the state in 2013, then-candidate Marty Walsh said he’d fight to prevent the state from ever seizing control of another struggling public school in the city. For the last six years, now-Mayor Walsh has made good on that vow, even as the 50,000-student district has shown only incremental academic progress, and stubborn problems like overcapacity, overspending on busing, a bloated central office, and persistent racial and ethnic achievement gaps remain.
Now, with the first full state review of the entire 125-school district in a decade nearing its conclusion, the city’s strong desire to avoid a state takeover ought to provide leverage for the Baker administration to demand some overdue reforms from a system in which 42 schools require targeted or broad-based intervention.
The city has a promising new school superintendent, Brenda Cassellius, who is working on her own plans to fix the city’s schools — an effort that can align with the state’s review. Indeed, the prospect of state involvement ought to strengthen Cassellius’s hand. Plenty of teachers, parents, and other stakeholders would rather avoid state intervention too, and that shared desire should give them all an incentive to agree to the kinds of reforms needed.
For that to happen, though, the governor and his administration will need to leave the threat of a full or partial takeover on the table — even knowing the sort of political blowback that placing individual Boston schools or the district into receivership might spark. Governor Baker, too, may have a reelection campaign to worry about if he seeks a third term in 2022, but risking his bromance with Walsh is a price he should be willing to pay for the sake of Boston’s students.
The results of the review aren’t public yet. But the district’s academic performance has lagged for decades, despite per-pupil spending and teacher salaries that are among the highest in the state. The annual dropout rate has increased, and chronic absenteeism has worsened, according to a recent presentation from Boston school officials. Historically marginalized groups, such as English-language learners, have made less progress toward goals than students district-wide.
Changes that would channel resources into the classroom, like consolidating schools, have proved too difficult, despite declining enrollment. (According to a recent report, the number of school-age children in Boston has fallen by nearly 10,000.) Political inaction has let problems like under-performance at Madison Park Vocational High School fester for years, to the detriment of students. Even a plan to restructure school start times collapsed.
If Cassellius can win agreement for a specific plan to close and consolidate schools, shift start times, and improve the district’s high schools, it would weaken any case for state intervention. But if she can’t, those are the kinds of political stalemates that receivership is designed to overcome. Receivers are granted the powers of the superintendent and the school committee, assuming control of the central office. They can hire and fire staff, make changes to the teachers’ contract, and even lengthen the school day or year. State takeovers of individual schools, determined by the state commissioner, are overseen by a designated leader or a nonprofit.
The history of the state taking over entire districts has been mixed: In Lawrence, where current state education commissioner Jeff Riley previously served as receiver for six years, the state takeover yielded dramatic achievement gains without much disruption. Riley fired half of the district’s principals but kept 90 percent of its teachers. Students’ test scores have been steadily increasing, and the district’s four-year high school graduation rate increased 20 points to 72 percent in five years. In Holyoke, progress has been less dramatic. The state is looking for a new receiver there; the current leader announced his departure after five years overseeing the district.
Riley clearly understands that intervention is sometimes necessary and appropriate. Just as clearly, he knows how much remains to be done in Boston, where he worked previously.
The state is expected to complete the review soon; city officials will have a chance to see it before public release. The review will only contain recommendations; actually putting a district in receivership would require a vote of the state board of education.
Even when it’s necessary, the disruption of a state takeover of a school or a district is never ideal. The best-case scenario would be if findings of the state review — and the threat of takeover — give Cassellius the political cover she will need. Now would be the time for the state and the district to agree to an enforceable, specific timetable for reforms. If Walsh doesn’t want an embarrassing state intervention in the Boston Public Schools on his watch, and Baker doesn’t want to stir up a political fight with the mayor of the state’s largest city, both would benefit from that kind of deal. More important, so would the kids whose futures hang in the balance.
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