So far, contenders Annissa Essaibi George and Michelle Wu have not agreed to participate in a single public forum solely to discuss K-12 education and the Boston Public Schools ahead of the general election on Nov. 2.
One example is a forum that ACT Boston, a coalition of 19 education advocacy organizations, was working on scheduling since before the preliminary election in September. Organizers said it seemed that both candidates were making efforts to participate, but then Last Friday, Essaibi George and Wu suddenly pulled back and said they wouldn’t be able to attend. (The Boston Globe is one of ACT’s media sponsors in their planned forum.)
Strangely the rejection came on behalf of both campaigns. The “Wu team has been in collaboration with Essaibi George’s team (cc’d) on scheduling and given the flood of time requests, we are not able to attend this event before the election,” the Wu campaign wrote in an e-mail to ACT in which the Essaibi George campaign was copied.
A spokesperson for Essaibi George rejected the notion that her campaign is declining forums specifically on Boston schools, yet no such public conversation with both candidates has been confirmed at this time. The Wu team said they are working to get a forum scheduled with the Boston Education Justice Alliance. Essaibi George’s spokesperson said the campaign decided to collaborate with the Wu campaign so they could maximize the candidates’ time and the number of forums they attended.
From a logistical perspective, that might be sensible to do with a competing campaign, but from a political perspective, it’s a bizarre approach, with soft shades of collusion between the two camps. The Wu campaign said they are coordinating schedules where possible to give the best chance of them being able to appear together.
Both Wu and Essaibi George are BPS parents. Wu has a 52-page education policy platform, while Essaibi George, a former teacher, calls herself “the education candidate” in the race and has an earnest 7,200-word education plan. Why are they reticent to open their public education ideas up for debate? Why not use every opportunity available to get in front of voters to uplift their record and vision?
“There is nothing more important right now than public education,” said Edith Bazile, a former Boston teacher and administrator and the immediate past president of the Black Educators’ Alliance of Massachusetts. Bazile has been part of a separate effort to host an education forum, but the candidates initially declined that invitation as well. “It does not engender confidence if it takes multiple attempts to convince a mayoral candidate to participate in a forum on education in the city of Boston,” Bazile said.
Among the partners in that effort are the Boston Education Justice Alliance, BEAM, the Boston Special Education Parent Advisory Council, School Yard News, and QUEST, according to Roxann Harvey, the chair of Boston SpEdPAC. Her coalition got separate rejections from the campaigns originally, but she said she had heard about ACT’s joint e-mail. “I read that [move] as if they were trying to slide through the campaign without challenging each other on any issues,” Harvey said. “That should be very concerning to the public. If the candidates are avoiding real issues together, that’s scary.”
Conundrums abound in the city’s school district, including how to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in federal relief funds or how to approach the harsh state audit released right before the pandemic that highlighted many weaknesses and failures across the system. “There is clear talk of BPS potentially going into state receivership, so this has to be a top issue for the new mayor,” said Harvey.
Harvey said Friday morning that her coalition is now going with Plan B: They will meet with each candidate separately and a moderator will ask Wu and Essaibi George the same K-12 education questions. Their answers will be recorded and then released publicly. But the format lacks the meaningful type of engagement a virtual public forum offers with a live audience that can post questions.
This cannot be stressed enough: Voters deserve more depth from the candidates. “I want to hear how you’re going to hold the superintendent responsible,” Harvey said. “What are your expectations for the school district? What are the metrics that you are looking at when you’re talking to the superintendent to hold them responsible?”
Or, what student outcomes will they champion? Is it third-grade reading? Is it readiness for postsecondary education? Important questions, among many others. With the Boston schools struggling and the future of so many students at stake, the candidates shouldn’t be allowed to call in absent.