The lack of nuanced and meaningful debate from the two Boston mayoral hopefuls about the profound issues facing the Boston Public Schools has been one of the most disappointing aspects of this historic race.
With one week to go before the general election, and early voting already in progress, there have been practically no public forums centered around public education. On Sunday, a coalition of education groups held public but separate virtual interviews in which the candidates, City Councilors Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George, answered the same 11 questions. Although limited to 45 minutes each, the conversations were illuminating — both for what the candidates said and for what they did not.
Put together by the Boston Special Education Parent Advisory Council, the Black Educators’ Alliance of Massachusetts, and the Boston Education Justice Alliance, among other organizations, the interviews featured live interpretation in seven languages and questions decided by members of those groups as well as parents, teachers, and students.
It was striking that each of the candidates noted that the questions posed were complex and that two-minute answers did not provide enough time to get into the issues, perhaps to avoid getting into specifics. But it’s also hypocritical — if Wu and Essaibi George believed that, why didn’t they give the topic the time it deserves and agree to debate education repeatedly during the race?
The organizers were intent on getting concrete answers from the candidates, usually following up with a call to be specific or to provide examples. There were questions around teacher diversity and special education, which generated mostly platitudes from both candidates.
Consider the first question: Given that both candidates gave Boston schools superintendent Brenda Cassellius a poor grade, what does she need to do to earn an A from them? “We would need to set clear goals when it comes to absenteeism, early literacy, [and] metrics around what a whole-child approach would involve,” Wu said. Essaibi George: “I want that superintendent to be very specifically focused on the work of helping our kids every single day. First and foremost, being able to truly understand how we are spending a $1.3 billion budget.”
But it was a question posed by Thy Nguyen, a high school senior, that exposed a key education-policy difference between Wu and Essaibi George. Nguyen asked about the presence of safety officers in schools and how the candidates would incorporate or strengthen restorative justice practices vis-a-vis student discipline policies. Wu stated that she supports removing school safety officers (known as “school resource officers”) and police from school buildings.
Essaibi George referred to the “important role and sometimes necessary role” school resource officers play in schools. “I am not a proponent of the Boston Police being in our schools,” she said. But she alluded to “incidents of students coming to school with a loaded gun.”
A member of the audience jumped in the public Q&A box to question Essaibi George’s answer. “What is the connection between cops and restorative justice? Do we have data on the ‘effectiveness’ of school resource officers? Where is the evidence? What are the rates of violence in the schools?”
There have been reports of school fights in various districts around the state, and perhaps that’s what Essaibi George was alluding to. Ultimately she did not directly address the spot-on audience follow-ups. “I know that . . .we disagree about having school resource officers available for our school communities,” she concluded.
It was a telling glimpse into tension between the two candidates. Edith Bazile, one of the organizers of the event, wishes there would have been more time to push Essaibi George harder on that question. For instance, Bazile said, she would have brought up the recent violent fights in Louisiana, where 23 students were arrested, and after which a group of Black dads formed a group to take turns and patrol the schools to keep them safe. It is a creative, community-based approach to public safety, Bazile said. “How do we build that community connection here?” she asked.
The grade the candidates get on addressing the critical issues in the public schools? Incomplete. It’s remarkable, given how consistently public education polls as the top issue in Boston. And it speaks to how difficult real change will be no matter who wins on Nov. 2.