A recent report by the State’s Department of Education makes clear that Boston’s Public School system isn’t doing the job. Of course this is not news. Boston’s schools administration has failed across the board for decades. Its finances are a hot mess. Its school performance varies from superb to unacceptable. It follows a busing order, almost 50 years old, that no longer relates at all to present residential facts. It maintains facility capacity, at needless cost, for 92,000 students when barely 54,000 are enrolled. Principals cannot choose their own staff. The exam schools have just adopted a racial quota admission rule that reminds one of 1950s apartheid in South Africa. Lack of trade and technology curriculum remains a problem. School bus timeliness seems hard to secure. The safety of school lunches has sometimes been questioned. Three years ago, the system was fined about $ 1,800,000 by the IRs for filing its reports late or not at all. Some members of the appointed school committee have succumbed to racial gossip.
I’d better stop right here before this column is reduced to a list.
So what, then, are we to do about a system that for fiscal 2021 eats up $ 1,250,000,000 of taxpayer’s money — one third of Boston’s entire City budget ? $ 135,000,000 of which is allocated to “transportation” ? About $ 15,000,000 to pay the salaries of system teachers who have no assignment because no principal will have them ? Maybe $ 20,000,000 in unnecessary maintenance costs for vastly under-utilized buildings ?
Why do we continue to hire superintendents from out of town who then pass through a rapidly. revolving door as their inability to manage a system out of sync becomes too obvious to be glossed away ? Is there no one in Boston schools administration who can do the job — who knows the failures first hand and can crack the whip of radical reform ?
Why did Mayor Walsh not reappoint John McDonough, who as interim superintendent from 2012 to 2015 had begun the reform process before system failures became this publicly scandalous ?
But enough questions and accusations. Below I set forth the radical reforms I beg us to consider urgent and to get busy at making it so :
( 1 ) change the City charter to institute a mostly elected school committee, of 13 members, eleven elected by district and two appointed by the Mayor. Parents MUST be brought in to school decision making. As voters, parents will have a direct say by electing whom they will. The same goes for taxpayers who foot the bill even if their own kids attend private schools or are homeschooled. As for the Districts, they should NOT be co-extensive with our City Council Districts, to prevent, or at least lessen, the rise of political rivalry. (My own suggestion is that we use the current busing assignment districts, electing five members from the large district, four from the next one in size, and two from the small district.)
( 2 ) divide the system into those three election districts, with a superintendent for each and a budget for each. Each District would be separately managed and would be required by the State to compete with each other on performance standards monitored by the state through the Mayor’s two appointed members. As separate districts, the central administrative staff would be reduced accordingly.
( 3 ) enact a City ordinance that the school principals in each District have hiring and firing power for ALL of their staff.
( 4 ) Each District budget will be separately subject to annual approval by the Mayor.
( 5 ) Establish parent-teacher associations, thus reviving the institutions which crucially oversaw and directed the operation of schools prior to 1974 and had the full confidence of the city’s voters, teachers and taxapers.
( 6 ) The exam schools will not be subject to any of the three district superintendents but will be operated and regulated directly by the mayor through his Education Advisor and staff. The ONLY schools issue on which the City’s most important elected official is accountable will thus be the success or not success of the City’s most sought-after schools. The exam schools will also have a separate budget overseen by the Mayor’s city comptroller, subject to approval by the Council. (the budgets for the three districts would not be subject to Council approval, as is the case in most Massachusetts communities, where school committees have budget autonomy.) As for exam standards, test scores shall be the ultimate arbiter of admission, but the school’s managers shall have discretion to consider the neighborhood status of a student seeking admission.
( 7 ) the City’s teachers union will bargain with each District Committee separately.
( 8 ) Budget performance will be overseen by the Boston Finance Commission and appropriate legislation shall be filed and enacted. These annual reports shall be published prominently in the City’s newspaper of record and on the City’s website in a separately accessible file.
( 9 ) End the 1974 busing order and the transportation if students all over the City. Boston’s students must be able to attired school with their neighbors.
In no way does the above list exhaust suggestions for major reform. Nonetheless, these certainly generate discussion and set the parameters of what can be devised to attack head on and utterly the comprehensive irrelevancy of much BPS administration, performance, and purposing. Nothing by way of reform should be off the table when we tackle 50 years of maladministration and misdirection. If we are to have a taxpayer-paid school system at all, we owe it to those taxpayers — and to school parents, potential school parents, and all students –to do the best we can and not ever again settle for a mish-mash inside a Rube Goldberg on behalf of kicking 1,000 inconvenient cans down the road.
—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere