The state shouldn’t take over Boston’s struggling schools — until officials have exhausted every other tool they have to prod the city into action on its own.
That moment hasn’t arrived quite yet. Whether it ever does is largely up to one person: Mayor Michelle Wu, who inherited this mess from a string of previous mayors who failed to be the education mayor the city needed.
On Tuesday, state regulators and Wu are expected to discuss the damning results of a state audit that documented yet more mismanagement and failure in the district, which serves 46,000 students, most of them students of color.
Buses that never show up. Students whose special-education needs aren’t served. Grimy bathrooms. Central office staff who report inaccurate numbers, seemingly cooking the books to camouflage the extent of BPS’s failures.
“Entrenched dysfunction” is how the report put it. The new audit notes that the district has struggled with unstable leadership, including a revolving door of superintendents and central office staff, and lacks such basic systems as a process to respond to bullying in schools.
The state, which has a legal responsibility to ensure the education of all children, can’t simply do nothing after compiling such voluminous evidence that the Commonwealth’s largest school district is failing so many of those in its care.
The best way forward would be for Wu to accept the findings, commit to the list of next steps that the state recommended, and agree to specific milestones for improvement. She could ask the state to deploy some of its formidable powers to cut through that entrenched bureaucracy.
State and local education officials are all supposed to be on the same side, after all. And by working in partnership with the state, the mayor could, for instance, designate an empowerment zone within the district or ask that her choice as the next superintendent be given the power of a state receiver to change labor contracts.
So far, Wu’s reaction has been guarded, but encouraging. “A lot of what is in the review matches with what our school communities and administrators have been calling for, in how urgently we need to focus on BPS and our young people, and in the need for strong, effective leadership,” she told the Globe on Monday. “We are still in the process of putting forward [to the state] what we believe is the best way to deliver on the challenges.”
At the same time, though, Wu also faces pressure from teachers unions and some advocacy groups to ride into battle against the state. They’ve depicted the audit, and the possibility of state intervention, as an antidemocratic move. On Tuesday morning, the Boston Teachers Union plans to protest the possibility of a state takeover at the meeting.
But rights aren’t up for a vote. A jurisdiction that has deprived so many of its residents of their rights — and education is a human right — is exactly why the state’s power to intervene exists.
That said, there are good reasons for the state to move cautiously on any intervention. BPS is a massive and complex system, and the state may not be up to the task of managing it.
But someone needs to take charge and assume that responsibility for ending the dysfunction at BPS. Thus far, Wu’s education agenda as mayor has leaned on measures like switching to battery-powered school buses, which might be important but has a tangential impact, at best, on educational quality.
Now Wu needs to put as much effort into running buses on time as on electrifying them; as much time worrying about what happens inside school buildings as about how they are heated in the winter. In other words, to head off a state takeover, Wu needs to become the education mayor — and fast.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.