A new day for public education in Boston
Agreement between city and charters puts Boston back in the reform forefront
The war is over.
Sure, there had never been an all-out declaration. But for years public education in Boston was characterized by deep tensions, which not infrequently spilled over into public skirmishes and verbal jousting between the city’s district school system and the expanding portfolio of charter schools – public institutions that operate independently of the district system. It was an ugly, often petty war, and one that relegated Boston in recent years to an also-ran in comparison to US cities that were comprehensively tackling school reform with real gusto and a sense of urgency.
All of which made the scene yesterday afternoon of Mayor Tom Menino and Public Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson standing shoulder to shoulder with charter school leader Kevin Andrews all the more remarkable. This week’s announcement of a compact between the city’s district school system and charter schools truly is “historic,” as all the principals have characterized it.
This week’s agreement, the product of several months of quiet talks, commits charter schools to more aggressive recruitment outreach to special needs and English language learners and to working with the Boston public schools to identify neighborhoods with the greatest need when planning locations for new charters. Charters will also focus recruitment efforts more intensively in the area near a school in order to minimize student transportation costs. As far as commitments from the district schools, the biggest may be the city’s declared willingness to discuss leasing of surplus school buildings to charters, something Boston had been loathe to do until now.
Beyond the specifics the two sides have agreed to, what the compact means is that Boston now joins some of the nation’s leading reform-oriented districts – New York City, Washington, DC, New Orleans – in having its mayor and school department leadership declare their commitment to supporting all those students being educated in public schools, whether district-based or charters. Not only does that posture allow charter schools to come out from the defensive crouch they often find themselves in, it dials up the pressure on the district system to embrace aggressive reforms or continue to shrink as more families vote with their feet and head to charters.
The Gates Foundation provided funding for a facilitator that worked with the two sides to reach agreement on the draft compact – it still must be approved by the city’s school committee and by the trustee boards of the city’s 14 charter schools. And the foundation is said to be very excited about the outcome and potentially interested in providing further funding to support the new era of collaboration.
As in so many areas, when it comes to school reform efforts, money talks. It helped push along the new agreement reached in Boston, just as the millions dangled by the federal Race to the Top program was a clear incentive to pass the recent state reform law, which raises the cap on charter schools and will lead to a significantly revamped teacher evaluation system.
“We thought about the kids first,” Menino said at yesterday’s gathering with charter leaders at the Parkman House, the city-owned brownstone on Beacon Street next to the State House.“It’s a very big deal,” said Andrews, the head master of the Neighborhood House Charter School in Dorchester and chairman of the Boston Alliance of Charter Schools. He conceded that there are a lot of details to be worked out, and not everything will necessarily go smoothly. “There will be some bumps in the road,” said Andrews. “But the bumps are going to be few, the successes are going to be many.”
As big a milestone as it is, ending the schools war was the easy part. Without the finger-pointing and blame game to fall back on, public education leaders in the city now have to focus on dramatically improving student achievement in a big urban setting, a task that certainly requires all hands on deck.