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Striking a deal to fix Boston’s schools

With BPS threatened by receivership, the mayor has taken steps in meeting the state’s requirements for improving the system, but she has to do more.

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu spoke at a Board of Education meeting on May 24 in opposition to a state takeover of Boston Public Schools.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Behind the scenes, state education officials and Mayor Michelle Wu appear to be inching closer to an agreement aimed at quickly overhauling the struggling Boston Public Schools. It’s a good sign that they’re talking, and talking seriously, about tangible, measurable goals like improving the district’s dysfunctional bus service and improving educational services for English language learners. The 46,000 children who rely on public education in Boston deserve no less.

But while the mayor deserves credit for putting together a serious counteroffer to the improvement plan put forward by the state, one that aligns with the state in most big-picture ways, it’s unfortunate that the city is trying to water down aspects of the state’s proposal for fixing the Commonwealth’s biggest school district. The city doesn’t want to commit to goals it considers unrealistic. Fair enough. But some of the targets suggested by the city would amount to mere incremental progress in a district that needs drastic improvement.


The dueling plans stem from the release last month of a damning state review of the Boston Public Schools, which found rampant dysfunction and particularly faulted the city for failing students with special needs and English language learners. The review also raised alarms about the district’s handling of parental complaints about bullying and the integrity of the data it collects on student enrollment, graduation rates, and bus tardiness.

The state has the power — and, if conditions get bad enough, the responsibility — to take over failing public school districts. But that’s a last resort. Instead, after the state review, education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley proposed that BPS and Wu commit to a series of significant changes, with the unspoken threat of a state takeover if she refused. That document has not been released, but elements of it have become public: Conduct an independent safety audit, improve the district’s system for parental complaints, and other recommendations.


Wu’s counteroffer to that plan acknowledges that “urgent action must be taken to address the longstanding challenges facing BPS.”

In an interview with the Globe editorial board, Wu said, “There’s a lot of common ground” between the two competing proposals. Both agree on launching an independent student audit, pursuing a deep redesign of special education services, and improving bus arrival times.

But the city proposals lacks some of the state’s ambitions. On transportation, Wu said that, as a parent and guardian, she has experienced tardy or no-show school buses. “It’s extremely frustrating to live through that,” the mayor said. “I won’t settle for anything less than every single one of our children having the experience” of arriving to school on time. And yet, in the city’s plan, it does not pledge to end “uncovered routes,” and sets the target for bus arrival times barely higher than it is now. Wu also said that she wanted to set the city up for success and that the legal agreement was something BPS could “meet right away even as we’re looking to implement some of the things negotiated” in the recently signed bus drivers contract.

Perhaps a guarantee of 100 percent on-time bus performance is unrealistic in a city with traffic like Boston’s, but the district can still do better than the 93 percent promised by the mayor. And to accept that there could still be uncovered routes for an undetermined period of time is setting the bar too low, especially considering that BPS spends more than $100 million of its $1.3 billion budget just on buses. The city should commit to a timeline to end uncovered routes.


The city’s plan also drops the idea of an independent data auditor embedded in BPS’s central office, which the state proposed in response to repeated cases of the district reporting inaccurate numbers to state and federal authorities.

Instead, Wu proposes to launch a data working group that would include a representative from the state education department and other members to be appointed by the yet-to-be-hired new superintendent. There is a provision to evaluate current procedures that resulted in the district reporting questionable graduation rates. But BPS data issues go far beyond that arena — there have been notable problems reporting English-learner data as well as basic paperwork problems in the athletic department. A commitment to independent oversight would go a long way to restore trust in BPS’s data reporting and handling of documents system-wide.

Wu’s plan also asks for more commitments on the state’s part. For instance, it asks for $10 million to support the city in the agreement’s implementation. The city also asks for more help in the English language learners category — perhaps a tacit recognition that the district’s office of English learners is in bad shape and would welcome the state’s intervention. Among the city’s requirements: that the state launch a series of free preparation courses for educators to get a license to teach English as a second language and to offer the MCAS, starting next year, in all nine BPS home languages: Spanish, Cabo Verdean Krioulu, Haitian Kreyol, Vietnamese, Chinese, Portuguese, Arabic, Somali, and French.


The state might be tempted to reject the $10 million ask, since it comes from a wealthy district with high per-pupil spending that just received hundreds of millions of dollars in federal stimulus money. But if it smooths the way to a genuine collaboration, the requested funding might be a small price to pay.

The state has sent a response to Wu’s counteroffer. Of course, Riley still has the trump card of a takeover that he could play if the talks turn south. But as long as he doesn’t compromise on the state’s core demand — that the city commit to a specific improvement plan that it can be held accountable for meeting — continuing the discussions is important, because there’s value in getting the broadest possible buy-in for the reform agenda that Boston’s schools so desperately need.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.