In Boston’s last open mayoral contest in 2013, runner-up John Connolly ran as the education candidate. The former city councilor and former teacher made improving the Boston Public Schools a defining issue of his campaign.
Sadly, the education challenges Connolly highlighted then not only remain urgent and stark, they’ve worsened during the coronavirus pandemic. Eight years ago, roughly two-thirds of the city’s schools ranked in the bottom 20 percent statewide based on student test data, while high school attendance had been at a record low since the late 1990s. Fast forward to February of last year, when a state audit of BPS revealed that more than a third of Boston’s students attend schools ranked in the bottom 10 percent of the state.
Yet none of the major candidates are in any hurry to claim the “education candidate” mantle this time. That’s frustrating, particularly in the case of Acting Mayor Kim Janey, who spent two decades as an education advocate in the city before getting elected to the District 7 seat in the Boston City Council in 2017. It begs the question: Why wouldn’t the candidate with the longest track record and most expertise on the city’s schools even try to make the issue her own?
“There’s a disturbing culture in Boston politics where politicians believe that you can’t win [when running] on schools and it can only be a divisive issue,” Connolly said in an interview. “They actually try to stay away from schools and away from doing anything to try to change the status quo because they think that will come with great political consequences.”
Connolly did pay a price, as he lost the mayoral race to Marty Walsh. (Connolly is quick to point out that he “lost by less than a 2 percent margin.”) But there’s something to be said for having the courage to fight the tough political battles in the city. And the biggest one may be the public schools, which is why it’s puzzling that Janey, despite a lifetime immersed in Boston’s schools and their challenges, has largely stayed quiet.
“I come from a family of educators,” Janey told me in a brief interview at City Hall. “My father started his career as a reading teacher at the Bancroft School in the South End, my stepmother was an art teacher, my mom also taught at another school system, my sister currently teaches [at BPS], she’s been teaching for 20 years … I have a cousin who’s co-principal at the [Boston Teachers Union Pilot] school.” Janey herself was at the Massachusetts Advocates for Children for years, a role that made her a fixture in school committee meetings.
Her dad, Clifford Janey, died in February of last year. “He obviously was a big influence in my life and just being grounded in education,” Janey said. He had a long career in public education, one admired in progressive education circles. Born and raised in Roxbury, the elder Janey grew up in public housing and eventually became the principal of the Theodore Roosevelt Middle School, an area superintendent, and later chief academic officer at BPS. He went on to lead three public school systems as superintendent: Rochester, N.Y., Washington, D.C., and Newark, N.J.
One of her earliest lessons, the acting mayor said, was when the Boston school system wanted to hold her back a grade. “My parents fought for me to go into my correct grade. So, I’m 7 years old and this is my first lesson in the strength of a parent‘s voice, the power of parent advocacy,” Janey said. Through the years, she and her father remained close and Janey would call him for advice when she was at MAC. When she asked him how to get more parent voices and people interested in the teachers’ contract negotiations, the elder Janey said it was about “cutting through this ‘us vs. them’ [mentality,] it was [about] being collaborative and being a communicator,” she said.
When I asked Janey what she considered her biggest win as an education activist before running for public office, she pointed to MAC’s advocacy on getting bilingual education waivers for English language learners in 2002, when an English-only instruction ballot question passed, effectively banning most bilingual education (it was overturned in 2017.) Janey also told me she is not in favor of a fully elected school committee and instead she is “open to exploring a hybrid model” as “there has to be direct accountability to the mayor.”
You would think Janey would want to boast about her education bona fides to voters, and use her years of experience to fashion a schools agenda. But with less than a month to go before the preliminary election, the acting mayor still lacks the policy substance that other candidates have put forward. Granted, as a local political observer put it, the city has so many fires burning, it’s understandable why education isn’t a singular issue for any of the candidates. Fair enough.
But Janey’s education platform on her campaign website has only a few vague paragraphs and a handful of bullet points that list some of her achievements as the city’s interim executive leader. They include the creation of a “first-of-its-kind City of Boston Children and Youth Cabinet,” a very similar idea to what fellow candidate Michelle Wu had proposed in April when she unveiled her 52-page education vision. Also included are Janey’s budget allocations for the next fiscal year funding youth summer jobs and a social worker and family liaison in every school. The list notes that Janey is “taking steps to ensure that over the summer, an indoor air quality sensor will be installed in every classroom.”
Annissa Essaibi George, a former public school teacher who chairs the city council’s committee on education, also released a comprehensive proposal for BPS in April that identifies “the lack of access to high quality schools for every student” as the system’s major challenge. But Connolly, who is supporting Andrea Campbell in the mayoral race, told me — not surprisingly — that Campbell is the one candidate who has not shied away from taking on the big battles on education.
Change at BPS won’t come until the district’s financial structural deficit is corrected, Connolly said, and “Campbell is the only one who has had the guts to vote” against the city’s education budget, publicly calling out former mayor Walsh for throwing more money at a fundamentally broken system. “She is the one with the track record and has taken the bruises that come with it,” said Connolly. He also highlighted John Barros’s proposal to reform Madison Park Vocational Technical High School by making it independent of BPS. “We need to see more stances like that,” Connolly said. These stances are controversial but that epitomizes the intractability of BPS’s issues. “You can’t keep running away from the problems,” he said.
Perhaps avoiding school issues is an effective political strategy, but it’s disappointing that someone with Janey’s education experience continues to shortchange the problems with Boston’s public schools.
Marcela García is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.