Once a National Model, Boston Public Schools May Be Headed for Takeover

Boston was the birthplace of public education. But a scathing state report, released Monday, said the district needs “immediate improvement”

Jessica Rinaldi/Getty Images

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In a city renowned for its colleges and universities, Boston Public Schools earned its own acclaim in recent years as an innovative, fast-improving hub of K-12 excellence. Situated in the birthplace of American public education, and combining generous funding with a thriving charter school sector, the district was held up for over a decade as a model of urban education reform.

But as the 2021-2022 school year draws to a close, those past accolades seem as distant as the days of Horace Mann. Amid plummeting enrollment, persistent achievement gaps, and a nasty COVID hangover, Boston faces perhaps the greatest educational crisis since its scarring experience with desegregation in the 1970s. And in the weeks to come, the city may lose more than its national luster.

In March, Massachusetts Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley ordered a comprehensive audit of the state of the district. Both local and national experts wondered openly whether the review, which follows a damning 2020 report, was the first step toward a complete takeover of the region’s largest school district. In the months since, a flood of bad press has done nothing to quiet speculation.

The audit, released Monday, provided the latest sign that state authorities are strongly considering action. Despite making improvements in a few areas, the reviewers found, “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 situation called for “immediate improvement,” they concluded.

The prospect of receivership (as takeovers are known locally) is hardly unprecedented in Massachusetts, which allows its education department greater latitude to reshape failing school districts than most state authorities elsewhere. But the structural problems facing Boston cast doubt on whether such an effort can be successful.

For three decades, the district has operated substantially under mayoral control, and newly elected Mayor Michelle Wu has already made clear her opposition to state intervention. Republican Gov. Charlie Baker — an education reform ally whose tenure has seen several takeovers — will soon be leaving office, likely to make way for a Democratic successor with sharply different views.

Wu told the Boston Globe that she met with Baker and Riley Friday and that they are still working on an agreement “that will set the district up for success.”

“A lot of what is in the review matches with what our school communities and administrators have been calling for, in how urgently we need to focus on BPS and our young people, and in the need for strong, effective leadership,” she said.

The state of Massachusetts could take over the Boston Public Schools after an audit released Monday recommended “bold action” to address a host of long-simmering issues.
(Tim Graham/Getty Images)

Cara Candal, a senior fellow at the conservative Pioneer Institute, said it was ambiguous whether Riley was leaning toward receivership or a somewhat less drastic approach. While significant obstacles existed, she said the recently completed review demonstrated that “kids aren’t learning, and many are unsafe in school.”

Cara Candal (Courtesy of Cara Candal)

Candal, who recently authored a paper calling a takeover Boston’s “best hope” for revival, said her takeaway was that things were “as bad as expected in some places and worse in others. In my opinion, the report underscores that the state needs to move with some urgency to provide BPS with the structures, support, and accountability necessary to effect change … There is a window for the state to act now, and I hope it will.”

Ultimately, the audit called for “bold, student-centered decision-making and strong execution” to reverse what it described as the district’s “entrenched dysfunction.” What that means in practice is difficult to predict. The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is expected to deal with the report’s findings at its regular meeting on Tuesday morning.

Ross Wilson (Courtesy of Shah Family Foundation)

But Ross Wilson, executive director of the Boston-based Shah Family Foundation, said Massachusetts should consider multiple options for intervention instead of duplicating the takeovers of major districts that have taken place in other states.

“Our state and city have the opportunity to do things differently,” Wilson argued in an email. “We should think creatively, collaboratively, and with urgency about the support and accountability necessary to serve the students of Boston.”

‘A steady stream of negative reports’

Few share Wilson’s historical perspective on the highs and lows of Boston Public Schools. A former kindergarten teacher, school principal, and central office administrator, he finished his career with the district in 2017 as deputy superintendent.

Thomas Payzant, former superintendent of the Boston schools, oversaw years of continuous improvement in academic performance. (Janet Knott/Getty Images)

That long tenure gave him an inside look at Boston’s ascent in the late-1990s and 2000s as a district known for continuity and rising performance. The schools were overseen for over a decade by Superintendent Tom Payzant, who placed an intense focus on improving instruction and enjoyed a strong partnership with the city’s similarly long-serving mayor, Tom Menino. By the end of his tenure, Payzant was frequently named as one of America’s best schools chiefs, and the district won the prestigious Broad Prize for excellence in urban education. As measured by the National Assessment of Academic Progress, the academic growth of Boston students strongly outpaced that of students in other major districts during this time.

The momentum carried on for several years after Payzant’s departure but eventually began to stall. A major culprit was churn: Including interim appointments, Boston has named four superintendents since 2012. Fast turnover has also extended to the bureaucracy — between 2016 and 2019, over three-quarters of high-level staff left the district, and less than 12 percent stayed in the same role — and even to the mayor-appointed school committee, which saw a flurry of resignations and replacements over the last few years.

Wilson remembered that the strategy for governing both traditional K-12 schools and their more autonomous counterparts (the district operates over 20 “pilot schools” that enjoy greater flexibility in hiring, setting budgets, and choosing curriculum) had “shifted from superintendent to superintendent,” leading to “overall confusion.”

The result of Commissioner Riley’s first review was a highly critical document that pointed to “staggering” rates of student absenteeism; in all, close to one-in-three Boston students attended schools that ranked in the bottom 10 percent across the state. In response, the city joined in a “memorandum of understanding” with Riley’s state education department in March 2020, pledging to turn around achievement in underperforming schools, diversify its workforce, and revamp its oft-troubled system of school transportation.

But the memorandum went into effect at almost the exact same time that the city’s schools first closed due to COVID-19, not to reopen for fully in-person learning for over a year. As in most of the country, test scores tumbled dramatically during the pandemic. Since students returned to classes, however, Boston has also been plagued by constant bad press, including several frightening instances of violence against school employees; a gut-wrenching sexual abuse scandal at a K-8 school that the school committee voted to close; and a decline in enrollment that has left the district nearly 20 percent smaller than it when it won the Broad Prize.

Mission Hill School in Boston has been the subject of controversy and allegations of mismanagement. (David L. Ryan/Getty Images)

In February, Superintendent Brenda Cassellius announced that she would resign in June after three tumultuous years. In a letter to the school community, the Globe reported Monday, she vowed to push forward needed changes but acknowledged that “this work will require increasing staffing, operational support, and other resources, including a more robust collaboration with City departments, to ensure that we are prepared to meet all of our students’ needs.”

Paul Reville, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who formerly served as the Massachusetts Secretary of Education, said that the search for a new superintendent came at a distinctly unpropitious moment.

“We're trying to attract a new superintendent at a time when we're on the heels of two superintendencies that did not end well,” observed Reville, who opposes receivership. “We're facing the threat of a state takeover, we've got a steady stream of negative reports on the performance of the school system, and the governance system is shifting. So you might be a superintendent working for a new boss in two years.”

Top on the list of responsibilities for the next superintendent will be dealing with a daunting set of problems laid out in the state audit. Among them:

  • While one-in-five local students take part in special education, that area of services “remains in disarray” two years after the 2020 review found them to be sorely wanting. Education of English learners was also highlighted for particular criticism.
  • Boston is not meeting minimal standards for the delivery of essential district services, including school transportation. Late or uncovered bus routes are “significantly disrupting education for tens of thousands of students each month,” the authors wrote.
  • Even the grievances identified in the audit may understate the extent of the problems because of a “pattern of inaccurate or misleading data reporting by the district.” BPS officials inflated the number of buses arriving on time, inaccurately reported the number of school bathrooms it had renovated, and possibly displayed incorrect student enrollment and withdrawal data on its public website.

Skepticism on takeovers

But if the problems facing Boston are significant, it’s not clear that receivership is the remedy.

Takeovers are among the most contentious school improvement strategies available to states. Even when launched in cities where schools have struggled to serve students for many years, they often sideline elected boards and offend both teachers and families by abrogating local control. Some scholars contend that by alienating voters — disproportionately those of color in cities like Boston — from governance of their own institutions, takeovers do more civic harm than educational good.

What’s more, evidence of their effectiveness is somewhat scant. A 2021 study of takeovers initiated in dozens of mid-sized school districts found that, on average, they yielded no positive outcomes on test scores; in fact, the disruption of the move led to further struggles in some communities.

Reville argued that the recent history of district takeovers suggested that most states lacked the capacity or the legal scope to pursue them effectively.

“I think our legislation gives the state more tools and more power than is the case virtually anywhere else in the country, so if you got a chance to do it, it would be in Massachusetts,” he said. “Still and all, I think the evidence from past experience suggests more modest expectations about state takeover.”

Paul Reville (Courtesy of Harvard University)

Much of the Massachusetts debate will center on the existing takeovers launched over the last decade in the long-scuffling districts of Southbridge, Holyoke, and Lawrence. None of the three school systems have yet regained control over their school systems, and all still rank among the lowest-performing in the state. Still, initial test results included in the 2021 analysis found that reading test scores had improved somewhat in both Holyoke and Lawrence. Receivership in the latter city was personally overseen by none other than Riley, whose appointment as state schools commissioner was predicated partly on the results he achieved in Lawrence.

“Although nationally we don't have great evidence that this is a key way to improve academic achievement, it does seem like Massachusetts has a stronger track record in this area than other states at using receivership toward the ends of improving achievement,” said study coauthor Beth Schueler, a professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia.

Because of the relatively narrow time period under observation, that paper excluded the takeovers of schools in New Orleans and Newark, where student outcomes improved sizably while under state control. But in those cases, a principal tactic of improvement was the expansion of high-performing charter school networks, which came to enroll sizable portions of K-12 students across both cities. Boston is similarly home to some of the best charter networks in the country, but a statewide cap on new charter schools prevents their expansion.

“As much as I would love to say to Boston families, immediately, ‘We're going to knock down district boundaries and make choice available to you,' that's not going to happen in Massachusetts,” the Pioneer Institute’s Candal said. “I think there are lessons to be learned, but we're not going to be a Newark or a New Orleans because the other stakeholders in the state won't allow it.”

A ticking electoral clock

The dynamics of receivership in Boston would differ from prior takeovers in at least one other aspect: Authority would be flowing away from a newly elevated leader with an unblemished record, and toward a state government that is headed for the exits.

Wu, both the first woman and first non-white person elected as Boston mayor, won the Democratic Party’s nomination in 2021 with a deeply progressive vision for the district’s future. In office for just four months, she has already proposed her own “Green New Deal”: a $2 billion investment in school renovation and construction. With Superintendent Cassellius stepping down, she will soon help select BPS’s next leader, the most crucial decision facing the district in the coming months.

Wu’s outsize influence over local schools means that if receivership comes, it will be at the expense of a well-known and highly popular figure rather than the obscure members of a local school board. Wu has already demonstrated her awareness of that advantage by personally appearing at a state board meeting in March, alongside the head of the Boston Teachers Union, to warn against the possibility of receivership.

In a statement responding to the audit, Boston Teachers Union President Jessica Tang called the timing of the release “suspect, rushed, and ill-advised,” alleging that the state report was marred by unspecified factual errors.

“This is an opportunistic attempt to overcommit the state past the current governor’s tenure to a hostile, unhealthy and burdensome relationship with the city by bullying the new mayor into an untenable, undemocratic, and patronizing arrangement,” Tang said.

In response to the unified pushback, Schueler said she wondered how politics might influence a takeover’s effectiveness.

“Proponents of takeover often point to school board dysfunction as the source of all the problems. What do they see as the source of the problem in Boston, and is that problem going to go away with takeover? It's not getting rid of the board in this case.”

Receivership is almost always dreaded in local communities, but in Boston, there is another wrinkle: Even while electing Wu last fall, voters also approved a nonbinding referendum demanding a return to elected school board members. Such a move would also inevitably limit the powers of the new mayor, who has said she favors a hybrid committee including both elected and appointed members.

Will Austin, a former charter school leader who now serves as the CEO of the nonprofit Boston Schools Fund, argued that while popular opinion might be firmly set against the appointment of a state receiver, state law was unambiguous in delineating Commissioner Riley’s powers to act in struggling school districts — of which Boston is undeniably one.

“The statute and regulations are clear and blunt,” Austin said. “ A vote by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education decides this — nothing else.”

Will Austin (Courtesy of Will Austin)

But the relevant actors also face a ticking clock. In November, the state’s deep-blue electorate will choose a new governor; it is widely expected that Gov. Baker, a two-term Republican, will be succeeded by a progressive Democrat cut approximately from Wu’s cloth. Whoever that person is — Attorney General Maura Healey appears to be the favorite — will have little interest in being accused of disenfranchising Wu and the voters of Boston. So while an opportunity exists to set a receivership in motion, it could disappear before long.

In the meantime, the district continues its reemergence from the COVID era. With over 30 candidates applying to be the next superintendent, Wu and the school committee could race to make a hire before the state reaches a consensus.

In response to the newly released review, Reville said the situation demanded close cooperation between Boston and the state.

“​​The report reiterates and describes problems that have persisted for a long time. The conversation needs to shift now from diagnosis to prescription. Neither the state nor the city is likely to be able to go it alone. The best chance for a remedy is a robust partnership between state and local leaders…and the political will to overcome resistance to change.”

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