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.

The brickbats thrown during the years of the schools wars had become the familiar background noise to every school reform discussion. The funding formula that sent dollars from the district to the charters was “draining” the district system of money.  Charters “creamed” the best students and did their best to keep out challenging students, especially English language learners and those requiring special education services. The mayor was often the lead critic. “We take every kid” was his frequently invoked refrain, a shorthand way of slapping down the impressive results at some of the city’s high-achieving charter schools.

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.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

“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.