Late last Friday afternoon, Governor Charlie Baker and state education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley presented Mayor Michelle Wu with a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.
As I understand it, the choice was to either consent to an agreement between the state and the city giving the state substantial authority over the Boston Public Schools, or brace for receivership, a complete state takeover of the district.
Wu left it on the table. On Tuesday, Riley said the state wants to be “respectful” of Wu, who has said she will submit a counterproposal by Friday.
When they met, Wu had already seen the scathing report the state released Monday demanding reforms in Boston’s public schools.
The 189-page report — the latest in a series dating back years — detailed massive problems in several areas, including special education, transportation, and English language learning. More broadly, it calls into question years of BPS management, which the state rightly found to be sorely lacking.
No one — including Wu — disputes that the BPS needs major changes. That’s why she pushed out departing Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, with a search underway for a new leader, who will be the fifth since 2013.
The need for change at BPS has been a constant refrain in the city for decades, though never pursued with the urgency it deserves.
The state has a major role to play in forcing change. But whether the state should manage that change is a different question.
As The Boston Globe has recently reported, the state’s record of taking over school districts is uninspiring. Holyoke, Lawrence, and Southbridge are districts where state education officials are in charge. At best, their performance has improved slightly under state control.
There’s no evidence — none — that receivership is any kind of magical solution.
I’m also troubled that receivership is being pushed by a governor who is leaving office in six months, and a commissioner who is likely to depart shortly after him.
Should Baker and Riley be making decisions that will bind the BPS for years after they’re gone?
Which brings us to my biggest problem with this. Wu was elected to run city government, and the responsibility for fixing the schools should begin with her. It certainly shouldn’t be snatched away by the state, on some vague promise that it will do better.
If you think state officials are inherently better at management than the city, perhaps we can talk about the ever-struggling MBTA. Or the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home.
Wu told me Monday she welcomes a partnership with the state — but not this heavy-handed approach.
“What I would say for my part is we want a targeted partnership and an agreement that BPS can live up to and be held accountable to that sets the district up for success,” she said.
She pointed to the search for a new superintendent, a newly announced school construction program, and a tentative contract with the district’s bus drivers union as evidence she is working to address the root causes of the district’s persistent poor performance.
Wu said the search for a superintendent is proceeding on schedule, and she still believes a new head can be named before the end of June, as she has promised.
There’s a belief in some quarters the state doesn’t really want to take over the system, that the threat of receivership may be enough to push Boston officials into finally doing things that have been promised for years, but never delivered.
Fixing problems has certainly not been common practice in the BPS. Specific goals and deadlines with consequences may well be in order.
Wu’s administration must be fully committed to doing the hard work of fixing the BPS. And they should have to show measurable results, not just their good intentions.
But this whole macho takeover threat doesn’t sit well with me. I can’t shake the feeling that Baker’s buddy Marty Walsh would be dealt with in a much more conciliatory way.
The fact is, 91,000 Boston voters placed their trust in a new mayor six months ago. They believed, by a wide margin, that she was the right person to address the city’s biggest problems.
The idea that Charlie Baker and Jeffrey Riley get to just toss that aside has no basis in pedagogy, or in democracy.
Wu deserves a chance to lead.