Can Charlie Baker do for the Boston Public Schools what he’s done for the MBTA?
More to the point, would anyone want him to?
For weeks, Baker and Boston Mayor Michelle Wu have been in a standoff over a threatened state takeover of the city’s schools.
The gist of the argument for a state takeover, or receivership, is that Baker and Education Commissioner Jeff Riley can succeed where the city has failed; that Baker — the supposed Mr.-Fix-It of state government — and his all-star team should be trusted to bring order to chaos.
But state government’s genius for fixing things might come as news to the investigators who have been combing through the operations of the MBTA.
Federal officials issued a scathing report this week detailing the many safety and operating failures of the T. They found an overworked workforce, runaways trains that injure workers, no timely plans to fix sections of track that are in disrepair, and many other issues as well.
In response, the MBTA announced Friday that it will reduce service on the Red, Blue, and Orange Lines over the summer, partly due to a severe shortage of dispatchers.
Those moves barely sound like a start on fixing the trouble-plagued system. As a daily T rider, I can tell you that no one in Boston needed a federal investigation to know that Baker has not fixed the T.
To be fair, the Baker administration has done good work in placing the system on more solid financial footing and delivering on long-delayed capital improvements, like the Green Line extension. But federal officials say the state has not done nearly enough to improve the system’s day-to-day operations.
In other words, the MBTA has a better balance sheet, But it doesn’t run better; it isn’t better at the things that affect the daily lives of the thousands of people who depend on it.
Jim Rooney, the head of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and former MBTA official, summed up the problem perfectly in an interview with the Globe.
“What the governor has done with respect to the T that I would argue with is that he’s focused on the inputs instead of the outputs,” Rooney said. On money matters, that is, not better service for its beleaguered customers.
Of course, the MBTA has been falling short for much longer than Baker has been governor. It has been beset by financial problems, labor problems, frequent turnover in senior management, and an institutional culture that has not always, shall we say, put the customer first.
All of which sounds a lot like the Boston Public Schools to me.
Now, no one is saying that fixing the schools should not be one of Wu’s absolute highest priorities. The mayor has a moral obligation and political imperative to end the torpor gripping BPS and produce meaningful change.
But the idea that a school system that has struggled for decades can be fixed in a matter of months is basically a fantasy.
As is the idea that the brilliant Baker team can march right in and whip everything into shape.
The T is an object lesson in what it takes to really repair a broken system. It takes resources, but more spending alone won’t do it.
Stable leadership and relentless focus are also important, because without them, there’s no way to execute meaningful, lasting change. You need the kind of leadership that can get everyone pulling in the same direction, and you have to give those leaders time to succeed.
“I don’t have any sense that there’s a group of people at the MBTA united around making the system better and united around a goal,” said Chris Dempsey, a transit advocate now running for State Auditor.
The idea of receivership for the schools gives me pause for many reasons, but hubris is high on the list. The near-universal frustration with the BPS is richly deserved. But that doesn’t mean an administration on its way out the door has all the answers. Or half of them.
After all, a vitally important agency Baker directly controls has now been the subject of one devastating review after another, and one failed rescue plan after another.
Baker, as is well known, can barely make himself ride the MBTA. He certainly hasn’t fixed what ails it.
So tell me again why we should believe he’ll fix Boston’s schools?