As he departs for Washington, Mayor Marty Walsh leaves a public school system that’s little improved from the one he inherited in 2014. Indeed, in some ways Boston has slid backward: Despite spending more per pupil than almost any other district in the state, Boston Public Schools has seen its graduation rates fall for the first time in a decade on Walsh’s watch. Meanwhile, a third of the district’s students attend subpar schools. The state, which said in an audit last year that “the district does not have a clear, coherent, district-wide strategy” for fixing its struggling schools, was stepping up its oversight of the system just before the pandemic hit.
The coronavirus outbreak created huge short-term challenges for schools everywhere, understandably relegating Boston’s longer-term problems to the back burner. But now that the race to succeed Walsh is picking up, and school buildings are slowly reopening, the unfinished work at BPS can’t be forgotten. The next mayor needs to do what Walsh would not or could not do: empower strong, reform-minded leaders — and have their back when friction inevitably arises.
At least initially, that task will fall to City Council President Kim Janey, who will serve as mayor once Walsh is confirmed as President Biden’s secretary of labor. (Janey has not publicly said whether she will seek a full term.) As a former education advocate, Janey knows the public school system and city education policy deeply. And that’s a good thing, since she will be tested almost immediately.
There is a perfect storm brewing on the K-12 horizon. Walsh leaves his schools superintendent, Brenda Cassellius, on vulnerable footing after she was subject to a no-confidence vote from the Boston Teachers Union. A December Boston magazine story detailed her difficulties, some of her own making. Plus, the school committee is lacking a member after a controversy over racist comments prompted the chair to resign last fall.
Right now the district is preparing to reopen buildings and resume in-person classes in waves. Earlier this month Cassellius and the BTU announced a much-anticipated tentative schedule that is starting to bring more students and teachers back to the classroom on Monday, with the last group of students returning April 1. Beyond that, budget season is upon the district. If all of that weren’t enough, there’s the pending three-year agreement between BPS and the state education department, signed in response to the 2020 audit, demanding improvement in the city’s lowest-performing schools.
And there will be funds available for transformational change. As part of the stimulus package Congress passed in December, the federal government is sending a fair amount of money to public schools: more than $50 billion for K-12 districts, mostly through Title I funding. Boston’s share could be about $123 million, according to the state’s department of education. That means more than $2,000 extra per pupil. The idea is for schools to use that money for post-pandemic recovery and improvements such as summer school or after-school programming, better ventilation systems, or remote instruction technology.
These funds will become available to districts next month, according to the state. So how is Boston planning to spend that money? Kids will need tutors, counseling, and other extra programming to address learning loss and pay for additional emotional and mental health supports. The last thing Boston needs is to use the $123 million to fund the status quo or — please, no — pay a consulting firm for a study to assess needs or gaps. (In fiscal 2022, Boston will also receive new state funds from the Student Opportunity Act, passed in 2019.)
All of these challenges represent a promising opportunity for Janey and for the next mayor. Even if Janey doesn’t end up running for a full mayoral term herself, she would be well served by learning the lessons of the Walsh era, particularly his triangulated relationship with Cassellius and the BTU. While Walsh publicly stood by Cassellius, he undermined the superintendent by negotiating directly with union president Jessica Tang. Walsh probably thought he was being helpful in mediating, but it’s hard to blame the union for thinking it can bypass Cassellius after the mayor abetted that process in the past. If Janey truly wants Cassellius to succeed, she’ll need to let the superintendent manage the city’s relationship with the teachers union. This is a time for maximum partnership, not extreme micromanaging. Cassellius deserves to fully own her successes and her shortcomings, and to be empowered to do her job.
But it also may be time to summon back a fourth person to the leadership team reforming BPS: state Education Commissioner Jeff Riley. He must step in to resume the implementation of the pending agreement with the state. His intervention is warranted to ensure that the most vulnerable students, in the schools that struggle the most, get the support, programming, and funding they need.
Walsh’s departure couldn’t come at a more consequential time for Boston Public Schools, placing maximum pressure on Janey and, after her, the next mayor. For the sake of 51,000-plus students, whoever is in the mayor’s office will need to marshal a level of coordination, support, and compromise that has been missing in local education leadership in recent years.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this editorial misstated the title of the state education commissioner, Jeff Riley.