Mayor Michelle Wu, alongside local and national teachers union leaders, spoke out Thursday against the prospect of a state takeover of the school system.
The comments came during a press conference on Wu’s “Green New Deal for Boston Public Schools,” an effort to revamp the city’s buildings, and one day after Boston City Council passed a resolution opposing state receivership. The mayor was joined by American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, Boston Teachers Union President Jessica Tang and other education advocates, including former state education commissioner Paul Reville.
The officials said they welcomed support from the state but said receivership, as state takeovers are known, would not be the right direction — and could jeopardize the $2 billion building program Wu announced last week.
“We need to let the mayor do this work in a way that Boston thrives on a local level, not on a state level but on a local level,” Weingarten said. “So I’m here today to give the AFT’s support, full support not only for the Green New Deal, but to let Boston be Boston and make sure that there’s local control of this school system.”
The vocal push back against receivership comes as the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education conducts a district review, which is looking at, among other elements, progress overhauling Boston’s special education system, where a disproportionate share of Black and Latino students study in separate classrooms. The state recently gave BPS a copy of an initial report of its findings. The review could be used to make the case for receivership, although the state has yet to tip its hand.
At least one member of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education has publicly urged the commissioner to intervene. But critics question whether the state has the capacity to take over Boston, with its 49,000 students, strong union, and complicated political landscape.
Like other opponents of a takeover, the education advocates acknowledged Thursday that the district has serious problems but argued the right path forward was to give the new mayor a chance to carry out her vision for the district, including the building plan, an expansion of early-college and career programs and the hiring of a new superintendent.
“We expect and demand partnership from the state on that,” Wu said. “We need resources and investment and partnership from every single sector. Receivership does not move us in that direction.”
With receivership, it could be out of the city’s hands whether to move forward with the building program, the mayor said, as School Committees and other local officials lose almost all their authority when the state takes over.
“It makes no sense at this time when we have this momentum building, this collaboration, historic investments, a vision, a new mayor, many new school committee members as well, and we’re about to have a new superintendent,” Tang said.
Wu and other officials said Wednesday that the building plan will help improve the district academically.
“The Green New Deal for Boston Public Schools is the pathway to the most rigorous academics and the most nurturing learning environment for our kids,” Wu said.
The ambitious proposal would begin with 14 new school buildings and major renovations, greatly accelerating the pace of construction in a school system that has built fewer than a dozen new schools over the last 40 years. Some of the district’s 121 schools date to the 1800s and in many schools, the clanking of steam radiators distracts students, learning spaces are devoid of sunlight and fresh air, and water fountains lack drinkable water. And $2 billion is just a starting point, Wu said Wednesday — she expects that number to grow as they assess the needs of more schools.
“Imagine trying to read in a 90-degree classroom or trying to learn algebra worrying about parts of the ceiling falling down,” Tang said. “These experiences are all too common for students and educators all across the district.”
Reville, who helped craft the state’s takeover legislation but has advocated against a takeover in Boston, called on the state to support the building program.
“I would challenge all ... public officials at the local, state, and federal level to provide the necessary support to meet this commitment and not only meet the commitment, but to extend it beyond what’s already been promised,” Reville said.
Union leaders also pointed to technical assistance on special education services and support for community hub schools as ways for the state to get involved without taking over.
For some critics of the district, the plans for buildings and early college are helpful but are not the sort of dramatic change they want to see. Ed Lambert, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, praised Wu’s call for partnership and said the business community would answer but said it was too soon to know if it would be enough.
“Incremental change is not going to resolve the nature of dysfunction that exists at BPS,” Lambert said. “State takeover is a potential solution — we’re not advocating for it as the only solution, but it is a potential solution.”
Mary Tamer, a former Boston School Committee member and the state director of Democrats for Education Reform, noted this is not the first time a Boston mayor has announced a major building program, referring to Mayor Marty Walsh’s BuildBPS.
“None of these announcements talk about what are we going to do to transform a system that cannot perform its basic functions,” Tamer said.
The Great Divide team explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Christopher Huffaker can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @huffakingit.