Public education in Boston will be a hot-button issue in this year's municipal election in ways that have not been seen for at least 10 years.
Education makes up a huge portion of the city's $2.4 billion budget. With school costs topping more than $800 million, education is Boston's costliest line item. It runs well ahead of high-profile quality-of-life services provided by the police and fire departments.
Curbing murder and mayhem by gunplay may remain Boston's preeminent policy challenge. But in the political realm, the sad truth is that, because the problem is largely confined to a definable swath of poor neighborhoods in Roxbury, Mattapan, Dorchester, and the South End that do not vote in sizeable numbers, the carnage does not cause the widespread negative wallop that it should.
Schooling, however, resonates in every neighborhood, from East Boston to West Roxbury, from the North End and Charlestown to Dorchester. As a potentially potent political issue, education has a depth and a breadth that may be unequalled.
Educating the next generation of children is about nothing if not the future. Families project their hopes and dreams for a better life onto their kids. And though Boston has become a city where the poor and the working class — many of them immigrants — outnumber the affluent and the middle class, it is white-collar aspirations rather than blue-collar realities that animate school concerns.
On Wednesday, hours after this issue of the Phoenix goes to press, the Boston School Committee is expected to begin considering 15 percent cuts to individual school budgets. Nobody wants to do it. And maybe an unexpected reprieve will materialize. But hope is not in great supply. A deteriorating national economy is winding up to inflict a cruel lash to the Boston Public Schools.
Fiscal conservatives will argue that improvements in school staffing over the past couple of years are not sustainable. That point of view is realistic only if you are willing to concede that education is a lost cause.
The financial challenges the school system faces would not have been avoided if not for this downturn. Still, the economic crisis is severe, and likely to impact Boston schools negatively for the next three to five years.
In order for the incremental progress registered by the schools to continue, City Hall is going to have to re-invent how it pays the bills.
As a prelude to long-term reorganization, Boston's more than 40 public employee unions must accept the one-year wage and benefit freeze proposed by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino. Not to do so would be recklessness of a very high order. A hard union line will threaten not only the schools, but services across the board. At a minimum, city's finances need a year of breathing room. As job losses and pay rollbacks mount in the private sector, taxpayers will grow impatient with workers sheltered from the harsh realities of the larger economy.
President Barack Obama is seeking — without much success — to engender a sense of comity and cooperation with Washington's Republicans. We hope that local union leaders prove to be more civil and civic-minded than the right-wing nut jobs in DC whose narrow minds spawned the crisis that now afflicts us all.
The best hope for keeping Boston's schools functioning ultimately will come from ending school busing, or ending it as it is now conceived. Bostonians without children in the public schools may not realize the degree to which the system is shackled by busing costs, or that widespread busing is still in effect.
Busing was instituted 35 years ago by federal court order intended to combat a clear-cut pattern of racial discrimination that saw white schools receive more money and minority schools less. Busing certainly ended the racist system of two-tier funding. But it did nothing to improve the overall quality of Boston schools, which — taken as a whole — was questionable in the first place.
The city now spends slightly more than $75 million a year transporting students to various, sometimes far-away, schools; $40 million of that cost could be put to better use if we transitioned to neighborhood-based schools. That money, redirected more creatively, would go a long way to helping improve schools. Because Boston's poorer neighborhoods do not have sufficient facilities, some form of transportation would still be required.
In a city that is predominantly non-white, using busing as a tool to erase past racial disparities in school funding is not just bogu, it is foolish. Today's busing program, like so much in government, has become institutionalized. It exists to solve a problem that no longer exists. Other challenges, however, have arisen that need fresh thinking.
Ending busing has been a topic that has long been taboo, discussed in whispers — if considered at all. This past weekend, Ted Landsmark, the president of the Boston Architectural College, had the courage to slap the issue square on the table, in an opinion piece for the Boston Globe.
Landsmark is not only a leading educator and a spirited citizen. He achieved a moment of national renown when, more than 30 years ago, during the height of Boston's busing crisis, he (an African-American) was photographed being attacked outside City Hall by a white mob wielding an American flag.
If ever there was a poster child for the victims of the old-racist Boston, Landsmark is it. He has had the sense to see a way to keep Boston's schools working. Now it is up to City Hall to follow his lead.