Education Takes Front Seat in Boston's Mayoral Race

September 26, 2013
By Doug Gavel, HKS Communications

Education policy has been one of the major themes in the 2013 Boston mayoral race. The two winners of Tuesday's primary – State Representative Martin J. Walsh and Boston City Councilor John R. Connolly — were among the candidates who spoke passionately and often about improving city schools, expanding the school day, and increasing school choice.

Paul Peterson is Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government and director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard Kennedy School. We spoke with him about how the mayoral candidates are talking about education.

Q: Why is education playing such a large role in this campaign?

Peterson: Many things are working well in Boston. Municipal finances are in acceptable shape, public safety has improved substantially in recent years, race and ethnic relations are as positive as they have ever been, and Boston’s economy is doing as well as can be expected.

But Boston schools, while performing at higher levels than the schools of New York City, Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit, are not providing the educational opportunities a multi-ethnic society will need to perform well in the 21st Century. The public is unhappy with school assignment policies that prevent many students from attending their neighborhood schools. The Boston Teachers Union has fought virtually every reform, including performance pay, teacher tenure reform, and the recruitment of teachers through Teach for America (TFA), despite TFA’s ability to attract interest among graduates of universities within the Boston metropolitan area.

Meanwhile, charter schools in the Boston area are among the best in the country, with several studies showing that charters are out-performing the Boston’s traditional public schools. Yet charter school expansion is barely creeping forward at a time when parental demand for more charter seats is growing rapidly.

Q: Did the two winners in Tuesday's primary differentiate themselves in specific ways when outlining their ideas on education policy when parental demand for more charter seats is growing rapidly.

Peterson: John Connolly has staked his campaign on convincing the public that he can do more to improve traditional public schools while at the same time expanding the number of charter schools. When asked which city he would like govern, if not Boston, he chose Edmonton, Canada, because it gives its local schools a good deal of autonomy.

Marty Walsh has not opposed charters or other school reforms, and he has yet to win the endorsement of the Boston Teachers Union, but his support for reform is considerably more qualified than Connolly’s. He has proposed expansion of the current school board so that all neighborhoods could be represented, a move that risks returning to an era when the Boston school board was peppered with activists fighting over neighborhood turf.

Q: City residents have long wrestled with a troubled public school system. Does the system show signs of improvement?

Peterson: During the Menino era, the city moved from an elected school board to one appointed by the mayor. While that move stabilized Boston schools and seemed to promise a major turnaround in Boston education, gains in recent years have come slowly. Between 2007 and 2011 8th grade performance in reading and math improved by one point in reading and 6 points in math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (generally known as the nation’s report card). Those kinds of gains are not large enough to dispel widespread concern about school quality.

Q: What are the ways in which a mayor can play a significant and tangible role in affecting education policy in a large city such as Boston?

Peterson: The mayor appoints the school board, and the mayor will take the heat in any collective bargaining negotiations that are not resolved without a teacher’s strike. And mayoral support for charter schools is essential if they are to expand in size and number.

Print print | Email email
Paul Peterson is Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government and director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance

Paul Peterson is Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government and director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance

"The public is unhappy with school assignment policies that prevent many students from attending their neighborhood schools."