“The whole world is watching.”
Much of the world cares little about those Boston public school students who chanted loudly outside City Council chambers on Tuesday afternoon. Those who do saw young people deserving of a great education participate in a protest they believe will get them closer to that goal. That day, however, they were mostly helping City Councilor Tito Jackson advance his agenda.
He says it’s all about the students and the schools. But it’s also about him as their champion.
By encouraging student protests about budget cuts, Jackson is directly challenging Mayor Martin J. Walsh and his vision for Boston school reform. The councilor began his remarks at the council hearing on the school department’s proposed budget by referencing the 62nd anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education — the landmark Supreme Court decision of 1954 that declared “separate but equal” schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional.
Those are fighting words, given Boston’s painful history of court-ordered busing to achieve integrated schools and its aftermath.
Boston schools are now predominately non-white and low-income. Today’s battle over resources no longer breaks down along racial lines. Now it’s between charter and traditional public schools. To some degree, that battle is inflamed by teachers unions that oppose charter school growth and have enlisted parents and students in that cause.
By encouraging the protests, Jackson is also playing loose with budget truths.
Over the past five years, school spending has increased by 25 percent — more than police and fire combined, said Samuel R. Tyler, head of the nonpartisan Boston Municipal Research Bureau. Despite the growth in charter school attendance, Walsh has protected the Boston Public Schools budget, which still accounts for 35 percent of the city’s total general fund. The school district’s proposed budget for next year is more than $1 billion, and includes a $13.5 million increase. However, an increase in personnel costs could mean some cuts.
After several years of making cuts in non-academic areas and in central administration to protect the classrooms, this fiscal 2017 budget is the first to make some changes in funding schools. That’s the future, said Tyler, unless the city consolidates and closes schools to free up more resources. It’s a hard political case for Walsh to make— and Jackson certainly isn’t making it.
The students are mobilized around the argument that all current programming should prevail and nothing should be cut from the current school department budget. In a way, they are fighting for the status quo, which is not necessarily the path to greatness. Of course, every budget cut affects someone’s life. It’s up to Walsh and his team to explain the big picture and the better place they envision for Boston public schools.
But the mayor is operating from some weakness right now, and not just from headlines about an ongoing federal investigation into City Hall/union dealings. After a large student protest in March, Walsh reversed a decision on planned spending cuts. With protest success comes more protest.
Walsh should get his act together.
Stop blaming “adults” for riling up the kids. Back the vision he has for Boston schools with the facts and figures that make his case. Build a coalition that believes in what he’s trying to do. Stand up to Jackson in particular and political grandstanding in general.
After all, how can this city live with its designation as a hub of innovation and enterprise, while middle school and high school kids march on City Hall because they believe they are being left out of it?
That happens only if we want those young people to conclude no one at all is watching.