In The News

May 25, 2022

THINK OF DANIELLE MILLER and Mary Tamer as the rock and hard place between which state and city leaders sit as they try to figure out a plan for the Boston Public Schools.

Miller, the parent of a special needs student at the Clap Elementary School in Dorchester, told members of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education yesterday that the district faces widespread problems. She sounded open to any approach that would advance the interests of students. But Miller said she is hard-pressed to see, based on the track record of state takeovers to date, how putting the district in receivership would help. 

“If the state had the capacity to significantly resolve or ameliorate the issues that parents, the [Boston Teachers Union], the state, and the district itself has identified over the years, that would, in my mind, largely outweigh the loss of community control that receivership entails,” she told the board. “But there simply isn’t any evidence the state has that capacity.” 

Tamer, a Boston parent and graduate of the city’s schools who formerly sat on the school committee, offered the board a scathing indictment of decades of failed promises and vows by district leaders to drive change on their own. She ticked off the laundry list of problems in the system, from the dysfunction a new state report said pervades the district’s central office, with no plan to fix it, to a chaotic transportation system, and bullying and sexual abuse at a school that continued “unabated” for nearly a decade without adults at the school or central office intervening. 

“If past is prologue, we’re likely facing years of mediocrity and failure,” Tamer, now state director of Democrats for Education Reform, said about leaving the schools entirely in local hands.  

After Monday’s release of the withering state review of the district, the second harsh state assessment of Boston’s schools issued in two years, the question is, what is to be done? 

State receivership looms as the most radical option, but it always seemed unlikely that Education Commissioner Jeff Riley would advance that idea as his first move in what’s emerged as a high-stakes game of chicken with Mayor Michelle Wu. State takeover of the largest Massachusetts school district would be an enormous logistical challenge, not to mention politically explosive. 

Riley made it clear on Tuesday that he’d much prefer to work out an agreement with Wu on a plan for the city’s schools that doesn’t involve full receivership. But what the contours of such a pact would look like remain unclear. 

While such a plan might be a relief to those like Danielle Miller who are dubious of the ability of receivership to lead to meaningful change, Mary Tamer sounded skeptical of the ability to generate real improvements without state intervention. 

At the center of the drama is Michelle Wu, who took office as Boston mayor just six months ago and inherited the school problems that have festered and grown for decades. 

“Voters elected Wu to fix the schools, and she deserves a chance to do it,” reads the headline over the online version of Globe columnist Adrian Walker’s piece Wednesday morning. 

But school improvement was not really the overriding issue that propelled Wu’s resounding victory, and it’s not clear that voters will hold her accountable on public school issues.

Then-Mayor Tom Menino, only three years into his record-setting 20-year run, famously implored voters to “judge me harshly” if schools don’t improve. He presided over a period that saw some gains in the schools, not coincidental with avoiding the recent revolving door of superintendents and retaining Tom Payzant as superintendent for 11 years. But Menino’s  reelection wins never turned on school improvement. 

In last year’s mayoral election final, Wu, a Boston school parent, and Annissa Essaibi George, a parent and former BPS teacher, both issued lengthy education plans. But neither spelled out measurable goals for the troubled district. 

“We want the next mayor to set really clear outcomes and targets for gains for kids, but neither of the plans identify clear outcomes or targets for children, particularly for those who have been historically underserved,” Will Austin, CEO of the nonprofit Boston Schools Fund, said at the time. 

“I ran for mayor to make sure that Boston stops kicking the can down the line,” Wu said at Tuesday’s state board of education meeting. Defining what that means is now something state education leaders will have a big say in. 

This article originally appeared in Commonwealth Magazine.