Joseph Feaster, who led campaign for appointed Boston School Committee, has changed his mind
Prominent Black attorney now favors a ‘hybrid’ model of appointed and elected members
JOSEPH FEASTER SAYS he was wrong about an appointed School Committee in Boston.
The one-time president of the Boston NAACP didn’t just support the earlier move to mayoral control of the schools and elimination of the city’s elected School Committee. He ran the 1996 ballot question campaign that got Boston voters to agree to retain the appointed school board. Twenty-five years later, he says, it isn’t working — though he’s less sure what the answer is.
“I felt very, very strongly that the elected board was not working to the interests of students in the Boston Public Schools,” said Feaster. “Now we’ve had the opportunity under two mayors to see the operation of the appointed school committee, and my own personal accounting is that it’s been an abject failure.”
Feaster’s is a notable voice of regret and reappraisal when it comes to oversight of the Boston schools. Support for return to an elected School Committee has been growing in recent years, and Boston voters will weigh in on a non-binding ballot question on Tuesday asking whether they favor reinstating an elected board.
The elected School Committee, which had enabled the stark segregation of schools that led the 1974 federal court-order on school busing, was also regarded as rife with patronage hiring and political infighting that had little to do with the welfare of the city’s schools. In the early 1980s, a city charter change scrapped the all at-large School Committee and replaced it – and the City Council – with a mix of district and at-large seats. That led to greater minority representation on the School Committee, but not notable improvement in the schools.
The legislation that ushered in the appointed board included a five-year sunset clause. That required the city to ask voters in a binding ballot question in 1996 whether they wanted to keep the appointed committee or revert to an elected school board. Feaster, a well-known Black lawyer who had just completed a stint as interim administrator of the Boston Housing Authority, was asked by then-Mayor Menino to run the campaign to keep the appointed board.
“That put me at odds with many folks in the Black community,” said Feaster.
Early polling showed the elected committee with a decisive lead. But with financial backing from the city’s business community and a not insignificant amount of political pressure from Menino on community leaders throughout the city, the appointed side prevailed by more than 2-to-1, with 70 percent of the vote to 30 percent for a return to an elected School Committee. “It was a large margin and a total reversal,” said Feaster. Only two of the city’s 22 wards – Ward 12 and Ward 14 in the heart of the city’s Black community – voted to return to an elected board.
Feaster said he thought having “one person who had ultimate responsibility” for the system would bring greater accountability for improvement. At the same time, he thought the mayor should find capable members to appoint to the School Committee and give them the freedom to debate issues and make decisions. “Neither under the late Mayor Menino nor Mayor Walsh has it operated that way,” he said. “They have no role and no power, and that isn’t what I envisioned,” he said of the appointed members.
Boston was hardly alone in embracing the model of mayoral control of schools in recent years. New York City, Chicago, and Washington, DC, have all given their mayors nearly complete reign over schools.
As disappointed as he is with the current structure, Feaster isn’t jumping on the elected school committee bandwagon. “The appointed hasn’t worked. The elected hasn’t worked,” he said. “I think I would at least look at a hybrid,” he said, referring to a mix of elected and appointed seats.
A poll conducted last month by the MassINC Polling Group indicated strong support for an elected School Committee, with 65 percent of likely voters saying they favor restoring an elected board and only 14 percent saying they’re opposed to such a change.
If the measure is approved, it will have no legal force, but could jumpstart a conversation under the new mayor about making changes to the current structure. Any shift in the school governing structure would again have to go through the Legislature and governor for approval.
Feaster, 71, has a long memory of schools in Boston not delivering, especially for Black students.
In 1974, the first year of court-ordered busing in Boston, Feaster was a Northeastern University law student who was part of a group of volunteers deployed by the Boston NAACP to South Boston High School. They gathered information from Black students who had been bused there on their mistreatment to submit to the federal court, which was considering ordering more police protection at the school.
Years later, his own two children attended the Newton schools through the METCO program, which buses Black and Hispanic students from Boston to suburban districts. “I wasn’t going to subject them to what I felt were inferior schools,” said Feaster, who serves as chairman of the board of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts.
In the end, Feaster said he isn’t putting a lot of stock in the idea that a governance change is the key to school improvement in Boston. “I’m willing to try something else,” he said. “I don’t think there is any absolute process that will necessarily improve the educational construct.”“What we do know,” he said, “is that the state [education] commissioner said the schools are not performing. We know these young people are coming out way way behind. I know of students in high school who read at a 3rd grade level. It’s a systems issue, and I’m not sure that governance is where the fix is going to come from.”