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OPINION

Can Michelle Wu fix Boston Public Schools?

While big thinking is necessary for change, the mayor’s job is loaded with immediate problems and crises.

In an interview, Boston City Councilor and mayoral candidate Michelle Wu didn’t have concrete answers to some of the most controversial questions about BPS.
In an interview, Boston City Councilor and mayoral candidate Michelle Wu didn’t have concrete answers to some of the most controversial questions about BPS.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Boston City Councilor and mayoral candidate Michelle Wu is not known for having a high profile on public education. And yet the mayoral race may be won by the candidate with the most convincing plan to fix the Boston Public Schools, something Wu well understands.

BPS, the riddle wrapped inside an enigma, is a test for all the candidates. Big, pressing issues loom in a system that fails to deliver for vast swaths of the city. Abstract and far-off systemic approaches from candidates may not resonate with some voters.

So when Wu released her 52-page education vision earlier this week, it was perplexing to learn that she’s calling for a “Green New Deal” for BPS. On the one hand, her plan has an expansive, pie-in-the-sky quality. She wants to bring an integrated approach to public education and “dramatically reshape,” as Wu described it, how the schools are managed from City Hall. Her fundamental premise: What happens outside the school — poverty and other socioeconomic factors — affects learning much more than what happens inside the classroom.

On the other hand, in an interview, Wu didn’t have concrete answers to some of the most controversial questions about BPS: Does she support getting rid of standardized testing (e.g., MCAS)? She wouldn’t say definitively. Would she keep superintendent Brenda Cassellius? She said she is not wedded to current leadership, but that the district needs stability after having five superintendents in the last decade. Would she close schools given that BPS has seen an almost 9 percent decline in enrollment in the last four years? She wouldn’t answer yes or no.

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Some key aspects of Wu’s plan: If elected, she would create a “family corps” of navigators to help parents and students through the system. She would also establish a Children’s Cabinet, chaired by Wu and cochaired by the superintendent, to break down silos and align education, housing, nutrition, and other services for children and parents within and outside schools. Wu would turn every school facility into a sustainable green building. She would also introduce legislation to turn the school committee into a hybrid, with a majority of elected seats as well as some appointed seats.

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“We can’t afford to just nibble around the edges with a new pilot program here or a small initiative here or an innovation at a school over here,” Wu said in the interview. “For 20-plus years in Massachusetts, we have been focusing on an approach that implements testing and metrics in order to quantify what the gaps are. If you focus on the very narrow, myopic interaction between students, their teachers, and the curriculum, you are ignoring 90 percent of what’s affecting that student’s ability to learn and be ready to absorb that curriculum and perform well in school and reach their potential.”

On its face, adding layers of bureaucracy to a system that already engulfs nearly 40 percent of the city’s budget doesn’t sound transformative. As a local public education expert told me: Why hire people to work around the thing you’re in charge of changing? Wu disagreed and explained that her family corps plan is about “breaking down the layers of bureaucracy — cutting through the bureaucracy.”

The new corps might help with chronic absenteeism, Wu said, a persistent problem in the district. At 25 percent pre-pandemic, BPS’s chronic absence rate had been increasing in the last few years and is higher than the state rate, according to a damning state audit on the district. The highest chronic absence rate was seen in the ninth grade: 33 percent. Meanwhile, Latino students had the highest absenteeism among racial/ethnic groups, at 30 percent.

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On the school committee overhaul, Wu agreed that turning the body into a hybrid model would take years, given that it would entail a home rule petition. Short term, she would reform the school committee nomination process to require representation of parents and educators. “We need democratic accountability,” she said. Then again, Wu is clear that the buck stops with her: “I will always be in charge,” she said.

As for a Green New Deal for BPS, no one disputes that many BPS school buildings need environmental upgrades. Wu also wants to electrify school buses, which is not hard to support. “I would ask voters and residents of the city to judge me on how many schools are now beautiful, well-resourced buildings with science labs and arts performing spaces and healthy environments,” Wu said.

Ultimately, framing reform for the public schools as a Green New Deal may play to Wu’s base. As a city councilor, she has made a name for herself on bold climate change activism.

While big thinking is necessary for change, the mayor’s job is loaded with immediate problems and crises. The state’s audit on BPS found that nearly 17,000 students — most of them from underserved student groups — attend a school that is among the lowest-performing 10 percent of schools in the state.

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What’s to be done about that? Why are only 54 percent of special-education students graduating? How will BPS spend some $400 million in federal stimulus money to address the deep impact of the pandemic year on a student body that was already being left behind? Many voters will be looking for candidates to answer questions like these first before they consider the holistic issues undermining the public schools.


Marcela García can be reached at marcela.garcia@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa.