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A new actor appears on schools stage

As the race to succeed Tom Menino takes shape, compelling new developments should put education reform front and center in the city’s political debate.

The first is growing anxiety about the city’s education system. New polling data show that the quality of education has emerged as the chief concern for Boston voters — and that the public has come to see charter schools as a vital part of the educational landscape.

Indeed, education outranked both jobs and crime, with nearly half of those in the survey — commissioned by an education-reform group — listing it as one of the top two priorities that Boston leaders should focus on. Three-quarters of likely voters said a mayoral or City Council candidate’s position on K-12 education would be a very important consideration for them.


Almost as many — 73 percent — said they supported charters, with only 18 percent opposing them. If faced with a choice between sending their children to a Boston public school or a charter school, slightly more than half said they would choose a charter, while a little fewer than a third said they would favor a district school. Parents of school-age children were even more inclined to say they’d opt for a charter.

As one index of educational concern, more than a third said they themselves, a family member, or a close friend had considered leaving Boston in order to put their child in school elsewhere. That said, however, most — 58 percent — said they thought the Boston education system was at least headed in the right direction.

Although Mayor Menino, long a skeptic of independent charter schools, wants any new charter schools to be controlled by the district, Bostonians demurred: 45 percent said that in general charters should be independent of the district, with only 17 saying they preferred that charters be run by the school system. The poll, which surveyed 445 likely voters in early February, has a margin of error of 4.65 percent. It was conducted by the Benenson Strategy Group, Barack Obama’s principal pollster in both 2008 and 2012, for an arm of Democrats for Education Reform. The latter group is a political action committee whose board and funders include wealthy Democrats impatient with the pace of educational progress and supportive of the charter-school movement as well as reforms to give administrators more power to restructure underperforming schools.


And therein lies the second development that should help push education to forefront of the mayoral race. New to Massachusetts, Democrats for Education Reform hopes to play a significant role in the city election.

Typically, mayoral aspirants have tiptoed around the issue of charters or sweeping education reform for fear of offending the Boston Teachers Union and its allies. That has often meant that no one has advocated forcefully for students and families who want more education options. But Liam Kerr, the Massachusetts state director for Democrats for Education Reform, says his group will be taking up their cause.

“It’s clear from this poll that voters are strongly in favor of education reforms like charter schools, and we want to make sure that sentiment is heard throughout the election and on election day,” says Kerr, a veteran of Alan Khazei’s 2009 Senate campaign.

That will mean pushing reform issues like lifting the charter-school cap and strengthening the district’s authority to overhaul underperforming district schools. What’s more, the group has set up an independent expenditure political action committee and may well make such expenditures on behalf of the candidate it judges best on education reform issues.


“Across the country, we have supported Democrats who have the courage to challenge an unsatisfactory status quo, and we hope to do the same here,” Kerr says.

That’s an eminently worthy task, and one that could help give Boston the kind of full, fearless, informative debate it needs as voters look for the city’s next leader. Welcome — and good luck to this new actor on the civic stage.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeScotLehigh.