School & District Management

Mayor’s Race Signals Change for Boston Schools

By Lesli A. Maxwell — October 29, 2013 7 min read
Mayor Thomas Menino speaks to the media at the Roosevelt K-8 School in Boston on primary day last month. Voters in November will pick a successor for the longtime mayor, who has had control of the city school system since 1993.
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As Boston prepares to elect its first new mayor in 20 years, the two candidates vying to replace Mayor Thomas M. Menino are touting education agendas that signal schools will remain a top priority at City Hall no matter who wins.

Still, the election will bring a key transition for the Boston district, as the man who has led the city for most of the era of mayoral control of the public schools prepares to step down.

John R. Connolly, a Boston city councilor and former teacher, and Martin J. Walsh, a Massachusetts state representative and longtime labor organizer, will face off on Nov. 5 after capturing the most votes among a dozen candidates in the first round of the nonpartisan mayoral sweepstakes.

From a proposal to deepen the bench of school leaders and expand the school day to plans calling for expanding dual-language programs across the city and strengthening academics for 9th and 10th graders, both candidates are campaigning on ambitious ideas to improve schooling.

The next mayor will also have even more urgent education issues to address: the hiring of a new superintendent and implementation of the most dramatic change to the student-assignment process in Boston since the city ended widespread busing for school desegregation more than 20 years ago. (“Boston Reconsidering Student Assignments,” Feb. 6, 2013.)

“Either way this goes, Boston will end up with a mayor who is going to have education on the front burner,” said Paul Reville, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who served as the secretary of education in Massachusetts from 2008 to 2012. He has not yet endorsed any candidate in the race.

“It’s really an ideal campaign if you are an education advocate or if your top concern as a voter is the school system,” he said.

Stable Leadership

Mayor Menino, who has had authority over Boston’s 57,000-student system since he coming to office in 1993, two years after the district came under mayoral control, announced earlier this year that he would not seek a sixth term, ushering in the possibility of a vastly different era of education politics and policy for the city.

Boston Mayor's Race (Nonpartisan)

John R. Connolly, 40, Boston city councilor, at-large; J.D., Boston College Law School; bachelor’s degree, Harvard University

Education priorities:
• Extend the school day
• Lift the cap on charter schools
• Develop a pipeline for principals by partnering with local higher education
• Shift decisionmaking authority from central office to schools and principals

Martin J. Walsh, 46, Massachusetts state representative, and former business manager, Laborers Local 223, a building and construction workers’ trade union; Bachelor’s degree, Boston College

Education priorities:
• Extend the city’s prekindergarten program to all 4-year-olds
• Lift the cap on charter schools
• Improve academic programs and supports for 9th and 10th graders
• Invest $1 billion over 10 years in building new schools and renovating existing ones

Source: Candidates’ websites

Photo credit: Elise Amendola/AP

The mayor handpicked the Boston school committee, which oversees the city’s schools, and, over two decades, Mr. Menino entrusted the school system’s leadership to just two permanent superintendents. Both Thomas W. Payzant, who served more than 11 years, and Carol Johnson, who served nearly seven years, presided over systemic changes and steady improvements that helped propel Boston’s reputation as a model for urban districts.

Under Mr. Menino, Boston has avoided the upheaval of widespread school closures and, because of state law, did not experience the speedy pace of charter school growth that marked other mayoral takeovers of districts such as those in New York City and Chicago.

“The mayor was really a partner to both the school committee and the superintendent and understood that there wasn’t any room for politics with a capital P when it came to providing better educational opportunities for the children of this city,” said Elizabeth Reilinger, a former chairwoman of the Boston school committee who served on the panel for 16 years. “I think we had a very unusual situation to have a mayor who understood that and acted on it."But Boston still faces major challenges in public education that the next mayor must tackle.

Large achievement gaps between black and Latino students and their white peers persist, and graduation rates for students of color still lag considerably behind those for white and Asian-American students. The public schools have also struggled to provide adequate education services to a growing population of English-language learners.

Big Hire Ahead

Mayor Menino’s successor will, at the outset, have to work with the school committee to replace Ms. Johnson, who retired in August. An interim superintendent, John McDonough, is currently in charge.

Mr. Walsh, the state lawmaker, has said he wants someone who is an educator and who will work in a close partnership with him, said George S. Perry Jr., the candidate’s top education adviser.

“That relationship is going to be critical to the ultimate success of both the city and the schools,” said Mr. Perry. “Marty also really wants someone who is committed to Boston and appreciates the foundation that’s already here, but also be willing to push the system to the next level of improvement.”

Mr. Connolly, the city councilor, in campaign speeches and interviews, has also emphasized the importance of selecting a strong superintendent. He has called for a shake-up of the school system’s central office and pushing more decisionmaking authority to individual schools and principals. (Education Week was not able to interview the candidate or a member of his campaign staff.)

But even with Boston’s relatively strong fiscal position and record of support for public schools, luring a top-notch district leader won’t be easy, said Ms. Reilinger, who helped Mayor Menino conduct his superintendent searches.

“It’s not just about finding a strong leader, but finding a leader who will be willing to take a chance on working for a new mayor,” said Ms. Reilinger. “Politics can rear its head at any time, and neither one of the candidates have been in this position before.”

Judging from what the candidates are saying about education, both have sweeping ideas that Mr. Reville said would need to be scaled back once one or the other in office.

“Their proposals are big and substantive, but either of them would have to pick a few priorities to focus on,” Mr. Reville said.

Proposals for Progress

For Mr. Walsh, expanding the city’s existing prekindergarten program to all 4-year-olds is a top priority, while Mr. Connolly has been pressing for a longer school day.

Both men have strong records when it comes to supporting the charter school sector. Mr. Connolly taught in a Boston charter school and, as a city councilor, has pushed for charter-like features, such as longer school days, for regular public schools. His daughter is a kindergartner in an elementary school in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood that was designated as a turnaround school in 2009 and has since extended the school day and replaced a majority of its teachers.

Mr. Walsh was a founding board member of the Neighborhood House Charter School in Dorchester, one of Boston’s most successful charters. Both favor lifting the state’s cap on charters, something that the mayor has embraced only in recent years. Boston has 22 charters but they have a waiting list of 25,000 students.

While the Boston Teachers Union has not endorsed either candidate, Mr. Walsh is the more labor-friendly. He has spent most of his professional life as an organizer and leader with local labor groups, even after being elected to the state House of Representatives in 1997. His campaign has brought in generous contributions from labor groups, something Mr. Connolly has criticized and has asked Mr. Walsh to limit.

For Mr. Connolly, a relationship with the teachers’ union would likely be more adversarial, judging from the recent past. He was the only member of the city council to vote against approving the most recent contract with the teachers’ union, largely because the union would not agree to an extended school day.

While that tough stance may resonate with voters, it could pose a challenge for him as a mayor who wants to advance major changes, said Mr. Reville, the former state education secretary. “I don’t think you can bring about substantial change by doing it to the field,” Mr. Reville said. “You have to make those changes with the field.”

Mr. Connolly’s candidacy has drawn backing from outside education advocacy groups that are increasingly seeking to influence local elections around the country. In the election’s first round, Mr. Connolly asked one such group, Stand for Children, to refrain from spending money in his behalf after its pledge to shell out $500,000 to support his bid drew criticism.

Earlier this month, however, another advocacy group, the Massachusetts branch of Democrats for Education Reform, announced that, as a counter to the labor money flowing into Mr. Walsh’s campaign, it would resume voter-outreach efforts in support of Mr. Connolly that were suspended in July.

Mr. Perry, the education adviser to Mr. Walsh, said his candidate’s union relationships are a strength that would serve him well in negotiating for important changes in the school system.

“His approach is to respect the collective bargaining process and bringing everyone to the table to negotiate,” Mr. Perry said. “But he would also be willing to say, ‘Let’s go back and revisit some of these important issues,’ such as the longer school day.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 30, 2013 edition of Education Week as Two Candidates Talk Education in Boston Race

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