Keane’s wobbly shot across Connolly’s bow
Call it an early shot across the bow. Whether it was intended helpfully to steer a course correction or to serve as the first big blast in the sinking of a mayoral hopeful’s dreams is unclear. In either case, Globe columnist Tom Keane undoubtedly got City Councilor John Connolly’s attention Sunday with his column titled “Connolly’s bland plan for Boston schools.” Connolly has put school reform at the center of his run for mayor, but Keane runs through the five-point plan ticked off to him by the at-large councilor and deems it “an uninspiring list.”
Though Keane offers a nod to some gains in the city’s schools in recent years, he says Connolly is “fundamentally” right in calling out the system as in need of major improvement. By extension, that also implies criticism of the man who has had control of the schools for two decades and who challenged Bostonians to “judge me harshly” on their improvement. But if Connolly hopes to unseat Mayor Tom Menino — who has yet to say whether he will in fact seek a sixth term this fall — Keane thinks he needs to come up with a bolder critique of the schools than he’s laid out so far. He says Connolly’s call for a longer school day, more staff training, and facilities improvements haven’t been shown to affect student performance — and they smack of the incrementalism that has been the most damning critique of Menino’s tenure.
Remarkably, however, Keane pays no attention to the biggest school issue of the day — the interminable effort to revamp the city’s byzantine school assignment policy, a change Menino has been promising to bring about for years, which is the focus of a controversy-plagued initiative now nearing completion. It’s not clear whether Keane chose to brush aside the issue or whether Connolly failed to make clear in their conversation that his plan for revamping the school assignment system looms larger than any of the specifics of the five points he ticked off regarding central office bloat, crumbling school buildings, and other school needs.
But Keane’s charge of bland incrementalism seems to fall apart in the context of Connolly’s approach to the student assignment revamp. Connolly has been outspoken in his criticism of the proposals that have emerged from the city-run process as no-win efforts to try to distribute more equitably the limited number of seats at schools regarded as a high quality. As Connolly has emphasized, it’s a zero-sum exercise. Together with a diverse coalition of city and state elected officials, he has proposed a plan that combines changes to the assignment system with some of the very kinds of bold reforms that Keane calls for. Under their proposal, all underperforming schools would be converted to innovation, pilot, or in-district charter schools — each of which grants much more leeway to schools over staffing, curriculum, and the structure of the school day. In challenging Connolly to embrace “big, daring ideas,” Keane asks, “How about converting all schools to charter schools?” Connolly’s plan goes a lot farther than anything proposed to date in embracing the idea of chartering at least those schools where achievement is badly lagging.
Keane correctly points out that it’s uncertain whether a school reform-based campaign will gain enough steam to put Connolly in serious contention should Menino seek reelection. But if it doesn’t, it won’t be because it lacks imagination or any big ideas.
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