When the federal government swooped in to tell the state how to run the MBTA this week, was that an overdue step — or an imperious move by unelected bureaucrats who have no business telling Massachusetts how to run its own public transit system?
And as the state mulls intervention in the chronically underperforming Boston Public Schools, is that an appropriate strategy to ensure a quality education for every schoolkid — or an attack on the cherished tradition of local school governance?
This month, the state and city governments find themselves simultaneously contending with a higher governmental authority prodding them to solve problems they’ve allowed to fester for too long. And if you’re cheering for Washington’s comeuppance to the Baker administration on the T, you should be cheering for the Baker administration’s involvement with the Boston schools too.
There has been no real accountability at the Boston Public Schools for far too long. The dismal status quo — a system that is not adequately addressing the needs of students with disabilities, English learners, and students at the district’s lowest-performing schools — has persisted, woefully resistant to change. It’s nothing short of tragic that BPS fails tens of thousands of families year after year.
Something similar can be said about the MBTA. Recent derailments, crashes, and other safety incidents — some of which have resulted in injuries and, in two cases, deaths — are only some of the most recent troubles at the T. Frustrated customers have come to expect delays; when it comes to the T, a degree of unreliability has somehow become normalized.
Luckily there are broader, stronger mechanisms to keep public systems accountable. Both Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and Governor Charlie Baker — the BPS and MBTA’s ultimate bosses, respectively — are of course electorally accountable to citizens. But elected officials themselves are also accountable to other authorities. It’s why, at both the T and BPS, a higher tier of government is trying to force change, the type of progress that the lower government officials have not been able to realize on their own for years despite their best intentions and attempts.
In the case of the Boston schools, that would be the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which launched an audit of the district, the second in less than three years. The findings are not pretty and include new details: chronically late or no-show buses; failure to adequately serve students with special education needs and English learners; neglected bathrooms. The state and the city are negotiating a deal to address the issues raised in the audit.
And yet, even the news that DESE was going to launch an audit was controversial and was met with concerns that state receivership would follow. Local elected officials and many in local education circles railed against top-down oversight, calling DESE officials “outside bureaucrats” and dismissing a possible takeover as anti-democratic.
Yet few people would argue that top-down oversight of the T, which is exactly what’s currently happening, is a bad thing. On the contrary, that a federal agency is looking into chronic troubles at the MBTA is welcome. The Federal Transit Administration released a blistering review that included previously unreported safety failures and demanded that the T complete four special directives, including to adequately staff its operations control center and to increase safety protections to prevent incidents at rail yards. As the Globe’s Taylor Dolven reported, this is only the second time that the FTA has intervened in this manner at the local level. In 2015, the federal agency took over safety oversight of the Washington, D.C., transit authority for more than three years.
Incidentally, Baker finds himself in an odd position: The governor is the common denominator both with the MBTA, where he’s being subject to oversight from the federal government, and with BPS, where he is the one applying the pressure.
Top-down oversight can be a powerful catalyst for change. Another example is when the US Department of Justice polices local police departments. And before you say “apples and oranges,” I recognize that the T and BPS are not a perfect comparison.
What’s undeniable is that the state’s largest transportation authority and the largest school district in Massachusetts have both been mismanaged for so long that we’ve become inured to their dysfunction. Both have failed the public for so long that they’ve now caught the eye of a higher tier of government. And that ought to be a good thing. Both public systems can certainly use pressure from the top to finally address the type of entrenched dysfunction and structural issues that have tormented them for years.