Riley looking for pact with Boston, not receivership
Education commissioner says he hopes to reach agreement with Wu
STATE EDUCATION COMMISSIONER Jeff Riley said the Boston Public Schools face a “myriad of problems,” from special education and English language learner services in disarray to data systems reporting inaccurate student outcomes, but he made it clear on Tuesday that he is hoping to reach agreement with Mayor Michelle Wu on a plan to address them rather than recommend that the state’s largest school district be put in receivership.
“I am hopeful and optimistic that we can come to some kind of an agreement on next steps forward,” Riley told members of the state board of education on Tuesday at a meeting dominated by several hours of discussion of the plight of the Boston schools.
The board meeting came a day after the release of a devastating state report that said the Boston school system is plagued by “entrenched dysfunction” that ripples its way throughout the district serving 46,000 students. The report said the district has “failed to effectively serve its most vulnerable students, carry out basic operational functions, and address systemic barriers to providing an equitable, quality education.”
The report, commissioned by Riley only two years after the release of a similarly harsh state assessment of Boston’s schools, raised the specter of a possible state takeover of the district.
He outlined six big areas – student safety, special education, English learners, transportation, data transparency, and facilities – that he wanted addressed in a plan for the city’s schools. He said he is hoping to reach an agreement with the city within a week.
“I’ll come back to this board in short order and let you know if we were able to come to something that’s mutually acceptable,” Riley said.
In testimony at the start of the meeting, Wu acknowledged the need for significant improvement in all of the areas documented in the report. “The truth is, none of this is new to our school communities,” she said. Wu, who met last Friday with Riley and Gov. Charlie Baker, vowed to formulate a plan within days for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to consider.
“Later this week we will share a proposal back to DESE that establishes clear areas for improvement with clear opportunities for support and technical assistance from the state,” Wu said. “We feel tremendous urgency in doing this work and we ask DESE to commit your expertise and resources to support our work in making the lasting improvement our students deserve.”
The board heard nearly two hours of public testimony on what to do with the Boston schools, with most speakers strongly opposing the idea of a state takeover that would cede local control of the schools.
State Sen. Lydia Edwards of East Boston pointed to the election last fall of a new mayor who vowed to make school improvement a major priority and to support from nearly 80 percent of Boston voters for an advisory ballot question calling for a return to an elected school committee. “What you’re seeing is a tidal wave from the people of Boston wanting the exact opposite of what you’re proposing,” said Edwards. “We want to be more involved.”
She said her mother graduated from the system despite being turned away from kindergarten for not speaking enough English, while her sister wound up dropping out of English High School. “I’m here to share my deep concern over what has not changed for Boston students despite the decades since my family’s unfortunate experiences,” Tamer said. “I’m also here to remind us of the broken commitments made by elected officials to fix what ails BPS. None have come to fruition.”
State takeover of chronically struggling school districts was authorized by a 2010 education reform law, but receivership has not shown consistent results here or nationally.
Danielle Miller, the mother of a special education student at the Clap Elementary School in Dorchester, told the board that’s why she opposes a takeover, despite the manifold problems facing the district.
“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 said. “But there simply isn’t any evidence the state has that capacity.”
State education board member Matt Hills said he would support receivership and, in a tense exchange, challenged Riley on the idea that a partnership agreement with Boston could be effective in driving improvement.
“I don’t understand your plan,” he said to Riley. “I don’t understand why what you’re hoping to get over the next week gives you any comfort.”
“This isn’t an issue of whether someone’s committed,” Hills said of Wu’s vow to lead district change. “The previous mayors were all committed. There are huge structural issues, both internally and externally, that keep changes from being made.”
Riley emphasized that he had not make any final decision about what to do, but “common courtesy and good sense makes me believe that we have to talk to all stakeholders, and do it in a way that’s impactful.” He told Hills he wants to “explore every avenue going forward before we make any kind of recommendation to you guys.”
The state review released on Monday pointed to a few areas of improvement in the Boston schools since the 2020 report, but concluded that the district was still mired in deep dysfunction. It said school transportation issues had only worsened, while finding that special education services continue to be “in disarray” and hundreds of English learners are not receiving federally mandated instruction.
The report was particularly harsh in its characterization of the district’s data systems, suggesting graduation and dropout rates are “likely inaccurate,” while charging the district with inflating on-time bus performance by not counting scores of routes that went uncovered and claiming school bathroom renovations were done when site visit observers saw that they weren’t.
The possibility of some kind of state intervention comes as Boston is preparing to begin interviewing candidates to take over as superintendent. In February, Wu announced that she and Superintendent Brenda Cassellius had made a “mutual decision” for Cassellius to leave at the end of the current school year.
The 2020 state review sounded alarms over very low student achievement at a set of more than two dozen Boston schools with student outcomes in the bottom 10 percent of all schools statewide. Riley said on Tuesday that he’s “punting” on any discussion of academic achievement goals for the district until a new superintendent in place and is focusing first on the the operational shortcomings spotlighted in the new report
When the 2020 state review of the Boston schools was released, Riley and Boston leaders signed a memorandum of understanding targeting areas for improvement. It’s not clear whether Riley is looking to replace that with a new agreement, add to it, or take some other approach.“This report makes it clear that urgent action is required,” he said of the new state review.
Riley did not say what action he will recommend if the state cannot reach an agreement with the city on a plan for the schools.