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THE GREAT DIVIDE

Boston community members voice concern over possible state takeover of schools

In a three-hour public hearing Monday, various City Council members, academic researchers, parents and teachers testified against the prospect of state receivership.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The roster of Bostonians opposed to a state takeover of city schools grew longer Monday, as City Council members, academic researchers, parents and teachers, the head of the Boston Teachers Union and a former member of the state Board of Education testified against the prospect of state receivership.

Speakers at the three-hour public hearing, hosted by the council’s Committee on Education, included Lawrence School Committee vice chairman Jonathan Guzman, whose district has been run by the state since 2011; Peter Piazza, an education policy expert who has helped evaluate the progress of state-managed schools in Springfield; and Harneen Chernow, a former state Board of Education member who voted for the state takeover in Lawrence — and now regrets it.

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“I’m here to tell you, I was wrong,” Chernow said, adding that, 11 years later, “Lawrence families are no closer to the schools they deserve.”

Concern has been growing the state may seek to intervene in Boston schools as well. Last month, state education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley notified the district that he would begin assessing the progress it has made since 2020, when the state released a detailed and highly critical report on Boston schools. The state and district then agreed on a three-year plan for improvements; this month, they will set updated goals, according to the state.

In response to questions at the hearing Monday, BPS administrator Drew Echelson said the latest state inquiry appears focused on three areas: opportunities and outcomes for special education students; aging and deteriorating school facilities; and persistent problems with transportation. The district has been working to address all three, he said, in addition to making other improvements, such as upgrading core academic requirements, boosting diversity in hiring, and increasing access to exam schools.

A presentation by Echelson, deputy superintendent for academics, and another administrator, Farah Assiraj, carefully paired lists of district achievements with lists of unmet needs. Echelson, along with other speakers at the hearing, said there are “two narratives” about the city’s schools, “both of which can be true at the same time.”

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“BPS must do better, particularly for students who have been marginalized for too long,” he said, “and there are amazing things happening in our schools.”

Most attendees seemed to agree. Michael Flaherty, another city councilor, was one of few to voice urgent concern about school quality.

“It’s clear our schools are falling short,” he said in his opening remarks. “I am extremely frustrated by the underperformance year after year after year . . . The microscope is on us, and we have some explaining to do, about why we’re not seeing significant outcomes from the significant amount of money being spent.”

Another councilor, education committee chair Julia Mejia, urged patience. “We’ve begun pouring resources into the spaces and places we need, and I think we need to wait and see the return on investment” before any move to state oversight, she said.

Council members and others expressed a wide range of concerns about possible state receivership, with many stressing the ongoing poor performance of districts such as Lawrence that have spent years under state control.

In Springfield, said Piazza, the policy researcher, he saw “learning reduced to test prep . . . and seven years later, no evidence of success.” The state’s involvement there has been most harmful to students with disabilities, he said, because of its focus on discipline and increased barriers to inclusive classrooms.

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Guzman, the Lawrence School Committee leader, said the state has taken a racist approach by targeting communities of color for school takeovers, and stripping the rights of community members to oversee their own schools. Schools in Holyoke and Southbridge, which have majority populations of low-income and Latino students, have also been designated “chronically underperforming” and placed in state receivership.

“They have been in charge for 10 years, and they have failed our district,” he said. “We understand what our children need.”

City Council member Kendra Lara said “no clear path out of receivership is being presented,” and noted that in one case elsewhere in the country, a school district in Paterson, N.J., spent 30 years under state control. The state relinquished its oversight last year, calling the takeover a failure.

“It could be generations,” Lara said.

A second City Council hearing Monday afternoon focused on the potential change from an appointed to an elected School Committee in the city, with most speakers voicing support for the switch. Voters overwhelmingly endorsed a nonbinding ballot question last November in favor of an elected committee. On Monday, councilors delved deeper into the mechanics of the potential change, which could be completed by 2026 using a phased-in approach modeled on a similar transition in Chicago.

“We should look at other cities with high-achieving schools for models to emulate here,” Flaherty said. “We can’t continue to throw money where there is no accountability, and I hope an elected committee will be the start of real accountability.”

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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 thegreatdivide@globe.com.



Jenna Russell can be reached at jenna.russell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jrussglobe.