Schools Are Marquee Issue in Boston’s Mayoral Race

By Lesli A. Maxwell — July 29, 2013 3 min read
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For the first time in two decades, Bostonians will elect a mayor not named Menino. They’ll also be selecting only the second mayor ever to have authority over the city’s school system.

Boston, the grandpappy of big-city mayoral control (around since 1993), is at a pivotal moment for the future of its public schools for a number of reasons. Current superintendent Carol Johnson is about to retire, leaving a key spot wide open for a new mayor to fill. A new student-assignment plan meant to provide better schooling options close to home is coming down the pike. And public and private polls in recent months have consistently shown that city voters rate education issues as their top priorities in this race.

That confluence of circumstances also presents an irresistible opportunity for advocates who favor reforms such as charter schools and stiffer teacher accountability to make their mark on the tenor and outcome of a campaign that features a field of 12 candidates.

Enter Boston Forward, a newish coalition of advocates who work in and around Boston’s public schools in a variety of roles. The coalition has published a full public schools agenda for the campaign, and has been meeting with all the candidates to influence their thinking on what schooling in Boston ought to look like, according to Jennifer Flagg, a spokeswoman for the group.

Among the group’s key issues: Lifting the current cap on charter schools and doing away with the centralized, top-down approach to managing schools and improvement efforts in the district.

Boston Forward is not a political action committee and will not make endorsements, Flagg said, though individuals who are in the coalition may favor certain candidates and contribute to their campaigns. It’s a more subtle way of trying to shape the election than what we saw earlier this year in Los Angeles, where a political action committee affiliated with then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa raised millions and millions of bucks from some high-profile outside sources on behalf of favored candidates.

While Boston’s public schools—which have had incredibly stable leadership over the last 20 years—are held up as models for urban school reform, large achievement gaps between white students and their black and Latino peers persist. Graduation rates for students of color still lag considerably behind those for white and Asian students.

And, perhaps most telling, a recent poll of likely voters by Suffolk University and The Boston Herald showed the city’s public schools, whether traditional or charter, would not be the first pick for most of them. To wit, 45 percent said they would send their child or grandchild to a private school over a traditional public school or charter school if money were no issue and they had a choice to do so. Twenty-two percent said they’d choose a traditional public school, while 23 percent said they’d choose a charter. Nine percent said they were undecided.

“Just as much as ever, people in Boston want to go to one of a handful of schools or move to the suburbs,” said Chris Gabrieli, a member of the coalition, and the co-founder and chairman of the Boston-based National Center on Time & Learning, an advocacy organization that promotes school turnaround using expanded learning time.

It’s clear that Boston Forward wants to shoot down any notion that it is a group of outsiders trying to impose their view of school reform on students and schools to which they have no direct connections. The group—which includes many charter school leaders in the city, as well as those who work in what Gabrieli calls the “independent education sector"—figures that its members touch the lives of at least 20,000 Boston students through their combined organizations.

A key part of the group’s message, said Gabrieli, is that “we feel we are as a legitimate set of players as anyone. We want to be a long-term voice for the independent sector’s view on how to change and improve education.”

Other advocacy groups who are also getting in on the race are two national organizations, Democrats for Education Reform and Stand for Children. Both have affiliate organizations in Massachusetts. Democrats for Education Reform has endorsed Boston city councilman John Connolly in the race.

Stand for Children was the principal organizer of a forum for the mayoral candidates in June that was focused exclusively on education issues.

The full list of candidates includes Felix G. Arroyo, John Barros, Charles L. Clemons, Daniel F. Conley, the aforementioned Connolly, Robert Consalvo, Charlotte Golar Ritchie (the only woman), Michael P. Ross, Bill Walczak, Marty Walsh, David James Wyatt, and Charles Yancey.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.