The race to elect a new mayor of Boston has been in progress for several weeks, and at last there are indications that the candidates are capable of intelligent thought — at least about improving the city's public schools.
City Councilor Michael Flaherty made the first move on Monday, releasing the most detailed — and impressive — set of ideas. Fellow councilor Sam Yoon followed with a more limited but still intriguing proposal. And the incumbent, Mayor Thomas Menino, unveiled a two-part proposal of his own.
All three, seemingly taking a cue from President Barack Obama, are calling for an increase in charter-school options for Boston Public School students — which would require the state legislature to raise the city's cap on the number allowed. But the candidates' approaches are strikingly different, and demonstrate that thinking about the issue can, and should, go deeper than yes-or-no, public-versus-charter rhetoric.
Flaherty wishes to add more charter schools in currently underserved neighborhoods. This could help pave the way to a "neighborhood schools" system of a kind that Flaherty rightly believes is not practical under current conditions.
Yoon's proposal would more than double the spending limit for charter schools that have demonstrated success. This "smart cap" idea, which Yoon is introducing as a home-rule petition, would allow those proven schools to accept far more students from their lengthy waiting lists.
Menino wants new legislation to create "in-district" charter schools that would be established and overseen at the local level, by the Boston School Committee (which, conveniently enough, is controlled by the mayor).
All of these proposals raise concerns. For starters, they would take money out of the public schools at a time when budgets are being cut to the bone. And, by themselves, extra charter-school seats don't solve the problem of underperforming public schools — they merely rescue a few more children from them.
The real challenge is assessing and adapting to what works — at public, charter, and pilot institutions. That process has been stymied for years by top-heavy bureaucracy and a recalcitrant union.
Flaherty proposes to break through some of the gridlock by decentralizing the budget process and placing decisions in the hands of school principals, rather than at the district level. He draws on concepts of student-based budgeting and school-based management, which have recently been implemented in other cities of Boston's size, such as Seattle and Oakland.
Better schools are made when good principals are given flexibility to do what they want with their resources. But it may be too radical a change for a system that has made progress and can't risk slipping backward.
Flaherty has broken new intellectual ground. We urge him to think more vigorously about changing the current funding formula, which penalizes students in the larger schools.
It was a welcoming change to see Menino concede this week that, despite past gains in school performance (for which he deserves solid credit), he is "frustrated with the pace of our progress." Only four years ago, when seeking re-election, he insisted instead that everything in the city was terrific.
In addition to his charter-school plan, Meninio is proposing "performance pay" bonuses to reward good teachers. That is just one of many ways to improve teacher accountability — though perhaps the only one that the obstinate union, still wrestling with Menino over a proposed wage freeze, might accept.
In all, this marks the first time in years that candidates have been willing to think about the schools in new ways. Now they need to think harder.
The three-way emphasis on charter schools demonstrates two things.
First, it shows how competition can spur political change. It took pressure from Flaherty and Yoon for Menino to become more welcoming to the idea of more charter schools.
Second, the fact that three of the mayoral candidates embrace the charter concept is an unspoken criticism of the politically powerful teachers union. Even more than the punishing fiscal realities of today, the union is the biggest single obstacle to making Boston Public Schools better. ^ ^