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Fixing Boston Schools

Three new ways of thinking
By EDITORIAL  |  June 10, 2009


The race to elect a new mayor of Boston has been in progress for several weeks, and at last there are indications that the candidates are capable of intelligent thought — at least about improving the city's public schools.

City Councilor Michael Flaherty made the first move on Monday, releasing the most detailed — and impressive — set of ideas. Fellow councilor Sam Yoon followed with a more limited but still intriguing proposal. And the incumbent, Mayor Thomas Menino, unveiled a two-part proposal of his own.

All three, seemingly taking a cue from President Barack Obama, are calling for an increase in charter-school options for Boston Public School students — which would require the state legislature to raise the city's cap on the number allowed. But the candidates' approaches are strikingly different, and demonstrate that thinking about the issue can, and should, go deeper than yes-or-no, public-versus-charter rhetoric.

Flaherty wishes to add more charter schools in currently underserved neighborhoods. This could help pave the way to a "neighborhood schools" system of a kind that Flaherty rightly believes is not practical under current conditions.

Yoon's proposal would more than double the spending limit for charter schools that have demonstrated success. This "smart cap" idea, which Yoon is introducing as a home-rule petition, would allow those proven schools to accept far more students from their lengthy waiting lists.

Menino wants new legislation to create "in-district" charter schools that would be established and overseen at the local level, by the Boston School Committee (which, conveniently enough, is controlled by the mayor).

All of these proposals raise concerns. For starters, they would take money out of the public schools at a time when budgets are being cut to the bone. And, by themselves, extra charter-school seats don't solve the problem of underperforming public schools — they merely rescue a few more children from them.

The real challenge is assessing and adapting to what works — at public, charter, and pilot institutions. That process has been stymied for years by top-heavy bureaucracy and a recalcitrant union.

Flaherty proposes to break through some of the gridlock by decentralizing the budget process and placing decisions in the hands of school principals, rather than at the district level. He draws on concepts of student-based budgeting and school-based management, which have recently been implemented in other cities of Boston's size, such as Seattle and Oakland.

Better schools are made when good principals are given flexibility to do what they want with their resources. But it may be too radical a change for a system that has made progress and can't risk slipping backward.

Flaherty has broken new intellectual ground. We urge him to think more vigorously about changing the current funding formula, which penalizes students in the larger schools.

It was a welcoming change to see Menino concede this week that, despite past gains in school performance (for which he deserves solid credit), he is "frustrated with the pace of our progress." Only four years ago, when seeking re-election, he insisted instead that everything in the city was terrific.

In addition to his charter-school plan, Meninio is proposing "performance pay" bonuses to reward good teachers. That is just one of many ways to improve teacher accountability — though perhaps the only one that the obstinate union, still wrestling with Menino over a proposed wage freeze, might accept.

In all, this marks the first time in years that candidates have been willing to think about the schools in new ways. Now they need to think harder.

The three-way emphasis on charter schools demonstrates two things.

First, it shows how competition can spur political change. It took pressure from Flaherty and Yoon for Menino to become more welcoming to the idea of more charter schools.

Second, the fact that three of the mayoral candidates embrace the charter concept is an unspoken criticism of the politically powerful teachers union. Even more than the punishing fiscal realities of today, the union is the biggest single obstacle to making Boston Public Schools better. ^ ^

Related: Can Sam Yoon win?, He's number three, Yoon or Flaherty, More more >
  Topics: The Editorial Page , Barack Obama, Politics, Education,  More more >
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Re: Fixing Boston Schools
This is interesting commentary, but don't forget that Sam Yoon has been talking about this for months. Flaherty is a Johnny Come Lateley to this issue - flip flopping from 5 zone plan to the 3 zone plan. As for Menino, what's he going to do in the next four years that he has not done in the last sixteen? Yoon's ideas are the most innovative ... they do more with far less resources. That's the kind of new ideas and fresh leadership that our schools and our city need.
By Anna Oreck on 06/10/2009 at 3:15:18
Re: Fixing Boston Schools
I would have to agree with Councilor Yoon that rewarding charter-schools that are actually producing results is the way to go. Too many students in this city are suffering in schools where there is no expectation of performance beyond the status quo. If, as a student, no one believes you can achieve much, what's the likelihood that you'll go above and beyond to excel?  If these high-performing charter schools are demanding excellence from their students, and seeing success, why not increase the number of students that can attend those schools? "Smart Caps" seem like a pretty smart idea to me!
By ff2005 on 06/10/2009 at 4:09:11
Re: Fixing Boston Schools
As a resident of the South End, I was pleased to read about Sam Yoon's education plan last week in the South End News.  Smart caps, partnerships with colleges and universities, a hybrid school committee--these are Sam Yoon's ideas.  This is the kind fo fresh and innovative thinking that I want to see from my mayor.  It's nice that the election season has forced Flaherty and Menino to join the party and start thinking about the future of our education system, but Sam Yoon is a leader in advocating for our children.
By Bill Denning on 06/10/2009 at 4:10:24
Re: Fixing Boston Schools
It's not the union that's holding the Boston Public Schools back; it's a commitment to public education. Charters, touted by mayoral candidates, who can be expected to oversimplify, and journalists, who should know better, do not have the same mission as district public schools.The Boston Public Schools serve a student body that includes 20% special needs students and 20% English Language Learners.  72% of BPS students receive free and reduced lunch.  Compare those numbers to any charter school in Boston, and you'll understand immediately how charters "succeed."  (you can find their data at // )  The great innovation that charter schools bring is pumping up their test scores by not serving the students who will score the lowest.  The Boston Public Schools will never be able to compete because they are true public schools, required by law to serve every student who walks in the door and unable to "counsel out" those students who prove difficult to educate. Perhaps there's a role for boutique public schools with a vastly different mission than real public education.  But let's debate this honestly and recognize charters as a parasitic organism on the body of the public schools and not an innovative alternative.
Your editorial is full of the same mindless union-bashing and charter-praising that journalists have been doing for years. Perhaps you're not very well suited to judge innovative ideas in education.
By BrendanHalpin on 06/10/2009 at 4:18:22

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