Just four months into her term, Mayor Michelle Wu found herself Tuesday launching a defense against a possible state takeover of Boston Public Schools, becoming the first sitting Boston mayor in recent memory to speak before the state board of education.
As state education officials prepare a broad review of Boston schools, Wu urged the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to give her administration — and its new yet-to-be-hired superintendent — a chance to improve the city’s schools.
”Receivership would be counterproductive in light of our ongoing transition and in light of the progress we’re making in collaboration with the state,” Wu said. “No one is better equipped to accelerate the progress Boston has made than our Boston Public Schools communities and I’m confident this review will suggest the same.”
The impending review has sparked speculation the state could be building a case for receivership under the control of an appointed leader from outside the system, undermining the decision-making power of Boston’s mayor and School Committee.
Boston ranks in the bottom 10 percent of school districts statewide, according to the state’s accountability system, with one-third of students attending schools that are ranked in the bottom 10 percent in Massachusetts. It has also been plagued by shortcomings in its services for students with disabilities and English language learners.
State education leaders said Tuesday that the review is aimed at assessing Boston schools’ current operations, two years after an initial audit found widespread problems, and could result in responses that range from increased state assistance to a temporary takeover.
Concerns about the state attempting to place BPS into receivership mounted last week, after news broke that Massachusetts officials would conduct a review of the district, the second since March 2020. State law requires such reviews within a year of the state moving to take control of a district.
On Tuesday, education Commissioner Jeff Riley said the review was necessary to accurately update board members on conditions inside Boston schools. Riley did praise the city’s progress on boosting teacher diversity, raising academic standards, and upgrading school bathrooms. But he also noted ongoing concerns about special-education and English language learner services, as well as the accuracy of BPS data on graduation rates and school bus arrival performance.
The board did not hold a discussion on the topic, which was not on its meeting agenda. But following a parade of public speakers decrying a possible takeover of BPS, Education Secretary James Peyser said the state had a “constitutional obligation” to take action in chronically underperforming districts to ensure children have access to a quality education. He said the state could intervene through teacher training, technical assistance, grant funding, partnership agreements, “and yes, sometimes through receiverships.”
Boston, however, is not considered chronically underperforming by the state; in 2019, the most recent year the issued accountability ratings due to the pandemic, Boston was not deemed to require state intervention or assistance.
“I don’t know what the right path forward for Boston should be,” Peyser said. “But I’m absolutely convinced the department cannot simply sit on the sidelines. This district review is not only appropriate. It’s essential to helping us and the city determine what needs to be done to fulfill our shared responsibility to the children and families of Boston.”
Wu, citing her experience as a mother of two young BPS students, acknowledged that BPS has many problems, but stressed families and teachers know best how to solve them.
“I’ve seen the places where we fall short as a district, in a school transportation system that’s frustrating for families, in outdated facilities, and ongoing disparities that close off our students from opportunity,” Wu said. “We must do better, particularly for our English learners, students with disabilities, and students living in poverty.”
The debate over a possible takeover comes at a time of transition, as Wu and other city leaders start new political terms, the district searches for a new superintendent, the city takes steps to move toward an elected School Committee, and Governor Charlie Baker serves his final months as governor.
The state’s March 2020 audit of BPS, released right before the COVID-19 pandemic forced school closures, found a special education department in “systemic disarray,” inadequate services for English language learners, practices that promoted segregation, inequitable funding of schools, crumbling buildings, and other issues. Among them: one-third of BPS students attend schools ranked in the bottom 10 percent of the state. The pandemic has added to those challenges.
Under Massachusetts law, the state can impose a receiver to take control of a district that’s found to be chronically underperforming on standardized tests. Many education advocates in Boston opposed to receivership point to the fact that Boston outperforms all three districts currently under state control: Holyoke, Southbridge, and Lawrence.
Receivership “is the wrong move . . . not the least of which is [the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education] doesn’t have the best track record for improving schools,” said Boston City Councilor Julia Mejia, chair of the council’s education committee. “You can swap out the players at the top all that you want, but the instability created through that process trickles down to the parents, students, and teachers, and we’re left exactly where we started, only less engaged and less hopeful.”
The state’s review will begin the week of March 28. BPS will postpone MCAS testing in grades 3-8 for a week to allow state education experts and outside consultants to visit BPS offices and dozens of schools. State officials will examine data and documents, interview staff, and observe classroom instruction.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Boston Teachers Union president Jessica Tang read aloud accounts of teachers who have taught in schools under state receivership, which described negative effects on services for multilingual students, teacher turnover, and family engagement.
“Receivership cannot and should not be a part of any conversation if your goal is truly to support Boston Public Schools,” Tang said.
Lawrence School Committee member Jonathan Guzman testified that the state’s “takeover dictatorship” in his city has harmed students by forcing teachers to focus on test preparation over meeting students’ educational needs. He called the 2010 law that enabled state receivership “racist legislation.”
“Why do you still believe that takeovers are saving our educational system when you have been in control of Lawrence Public Schools for 10 years and you have failed us?” Guzman said. “If you as a body wish to be anti-racist, you must first show some respect for communities of color and recognize that we understand the needs of our children better than any outsiders.”
Not all Boston education advocates oppose the state’s recent actions. Roxann Harvey, chair of the Boston Special Education Parent Advisory Council, said last week that she was pleased the state is conducting another review, noting that BPS hasn’t made significant changes in the last two years.
“It is time to stop using COVID as a reason for continuing to fail our students since before the pandemic and to deal with the racism in the district that is impacting our students,” she said.
The state board plans to discuss Boston’s status later this spring, after the review concludes.
The Great Divide is an investigative team that explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Naomi Martin can be reached at email@example.com.