Last week’s column proposing the elimination of the Boston School Committee and making the school department directly responsible to the elected mayor and city council prompted many strong responses. We are thankful to those who reached out.
Nearly all who wrote to us were alarmed at the idea of returning to an elected committee and viewed the idea of eliminating the school committee positively, though only former city councillor Larry DiCara was willing to be quoted:
“An elected committee would be a DISASTER; ‘been there, done that,” he said.
Most who reacted to the column spoke from their direct experience under an elected school committee. They comprised a racially diverse group of former and current BPS parents and employees, and school committee members, both elected and appointed.
The years of the elected school committee were not some golden era in the Boston Public Schools, nor, in our view, have we come close in the intervening 30 plus years to ensuring that every BPS school is excellent. Hence, our bold proposal.
RELATED | To the Editor: We BPS parents strongly back an elected School Committee
The non-binding question to return to an elected school committee was barely discussed in the course of the recent election, which had a poor voter turnout.
Had there been a binding question and a robust debate, it would have been disclosed that there are actually five options for running the Boston Public Schools (BPS), the largest district in the Commonwealth: (1) elected school committee, (2) an appointed committee, (3) a hybrid elected & appointed committee, (4) the elimination of the committee, make BPS a department under the mayor, and (5) receivership by the state.
Among the other items that would need a great deal of discussion is whether the school committee would have taxing authority. Whatever is decided would have to be passed by the city council, the mayor, the Legislature, and the governor. Under state law, cities and towns are creatures of the state, and therefore any change to the school committee must be done through a “Home Rule Petition” from the city.
Some made the argument that the mayor already controls the schools, a statement that was rebutted by former state secretary of education Paul Reville on WGBH’s “Boston Public Radio” on Feb. 17. He described city oversight of BPS as a “buffered system, where the mayor has control, but not direct control. The mayor doesn’t run it as though it’s a department. The mayor appoints members of the school committee and they still run what is, technically speaking, an autonomous school department.”
On changing to an elected committee, Reville said it would be a deterrent to potential superintendent candidates, adding, “I don’t think it’s a real plus to go in that direction.”
The other argument of those who would like to return to an elected school committee is that it would bring democracy into running BPS. We want more democracy, not less, but democracy is not alive and well in Boston. Few registered voters actually vote in our municipal elections. Our assumption is that a return to an elected committee would follow both the districts and terms of the city council.
Just one in three registered voters participated in the 2021 final election. In off-year (non-mayoral) election cycles, that number has been as low as 14 percent in a general election (2015), and 5 percent in a preliminary (2011).
On average, 85 percent of Boston voters do not vote in preliminary elections and 75 percent don’t vote in general elections. The denominator in these percentages is only registered voters, which excludes non-citizens whose children make up a significant percentage of school age children.
Low turnout elections make it easier for well-funded vested interests in maintaining the status quo to win. An elected school committee would add another political layer with competing neighborhood interests to a system that already is dysfunctional. Beyond this, why would anyone call turning over responsibility for schools to the elected mayor and elected city council anti-democratic?
We could ensure greater democracy and double the turnout by having municipal elections occur in the same years and days as state and federal elections, which have much higher turnout, thereby eliminating odd-numbered year elections. As a candidate, Mayor Wu opposed this change. We hope that as mayor she will provide leadership in expanding municipal voting.
We have also heard that the mayor and school committee largely lack knowledge of education policy, but so do, and did, many of the elected and appointed school committee members. There is no requirement for such knowledge. But what is essential is that whoever is in charge of the schools hires people who do have that knowledge, and, further, is able to manage BPS in achieving its goals.
Our belief is that turning around BPS is a question of aligning the leadership of the mayor, city council, the superintendent, and the principals of the individual schools. The most highly qualified, dedicated BPS teachers can be doing exemplary jobs in their classrooms, but without the alignment and backing of people in power, the windows don’t operate, supplies don’t arrive, and parents are not empowered as full partners in their children’s education. Adding another layer to that mix has proved to be ineffective over many decades.
Although the referendum question on the school committee was non-binding, it will be successful if it encourages widespread public discourse on what kind of school system is necessary to achieve excellence for all of Boston’s children.
With the pandemic allowing more creativity in public engagement through internet access to meetings, there is an opportunity here to engage more Bostonians in how to fix our schools. Lively, respectful, and thoughtful exchanges of ideas power a democracy.
Bill Walczak and Meg Campbell are married and residents of Dorchester.