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OPINION

Boston families have waited long enough for better schools

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education must take a strong hand in transforming a broken BPS.

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The failure of the Boston Public Schools to provide a quality education to tens of thousands of Boston’s children has lasted for decades. The depth of the dysfunction was chronicled in detail in the latest state audit of the system.

“The district has failed to effectively serve its most vulnerable students, carry out basic operational functions, and address systemic barriers to providing an equitable, quality education,” the state concluded.

Now the question comes: What will be done about it? At the moment, the city is spending all its energy trying to fend off a state takeover. Meanwhile, the state is tiptoeing around how intrusive it needs to be in the operation of a badly broken school system.

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Negotiations continue and families continue to wait. Whatever the final outcome, one thing can’t happen if the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education decides not to impose receivership — the city can’t breathe a sigh of relief and snap back to business as usual.

Nearly every day there is another news article about how our children are being denied their right to a first-rate education by the ineptitude or inaction of the district’s administration. And it seems every year more promises are made by well-intentioned mayors that never materialize.

The district also needs a plan that includes specific steps to improve student outcomes and opportunities, detailed assessments of progress, and uncompromising accountability measures if those benchmarks are not met on a specific timeline. Anything short of that will be akin to a hall pass for BPS. Strong oversight by the state is essential — the label of which is irrelevant.

Drastic measures are necessary because past efforts have unequivocally failed. There is a long list of broken promises: BuildBPS, high school redesign, universal prekindergarten, a dual-degree program with Roxbury Community College, to name a few. Even a 2010 settlement agreement with the US Department of Justice over the district’s lack of compliance in the education of our English learners has not yielded results worthy of these children.

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Mayor Michelle Wu recently announced a $2 billion school build and renovation plan impacting only 14 schools and an expansion of the city’s early college program. Families deserve a plan for every school, and they deserve buildings in which 21st-century learning will take place, where proper support will be provided, and where all laws intended to protect and educate their children will be followed. An early college program involving only four BPS high schools in a district where a mere 9 percent of students have access to early college falls far short of where we need to be.

What will be different this time to bring these plans to fruition? If the past is prologue, not much.

Any mutual agreement between DESE and Boston must address the organizational disarray of the special education department and the entrenched dysfunction of a central office unable to guarantee support to school leaders, student safety, or even a daily bus ride to school.

The plan must also include specific measures to ensure families that their children are safe at school. As the recent report on the Mission Hill School makes painfully clear, unabated abuse of students took place there for nearly a decade. Virtually no adults at the school, at the central office, or at City Hall stepped in to stop the trauma that sexual abuse and bullying inflicted on countless students as young as 4 and 5.

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When staff across a multitude of schools shun laws about mandatory reporting, anti-bullying, special education, and the proper education of English learners — and have done so for decades — this is a crisis that requires intervention.

When BPS cycles through district leadership, and yet continues to embark on superintendent searches every two years and expects different results, this is a crisis that requires intervention.

When elected leaders come forward not to discuss how to address the vast discrepancies in learning outcomes across student groups, but to advocate for their continued power over a district that has failed tens of thousands of children, this is a crisis that requires intervention.

BPS continues to hemorrhage students because families of all races and neighborhoods have lost faith in a broken district. Families cry out for safe havens of learning, and what they get is unpredictability, uncertainty, and frustration.

BPS has failed generations of Boston children. Lack of funds isn’t the reason. With BPS spending nearly $27,000 per pupil, it has the financial resources it needs.

Short of full receivership, Boston’s families deserve real accountability, a real plan, and transformational change. We have waited long enough.

Mary Tamer is state director of Democrats for Education Reform Massachusetts and a former member of the Boston School Committee.

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