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Mayoral candidates agree: Time to bust up bloated central school bureaucracy

At a forum sponsored by several local educational groups today, candidates for mayor agreed that Boston public schools need a longer school day and need to be freed from the shackles of an oppressive central administration at Court Street.

Bill Walczak said innovation and great teaching come from "autonomous" schools without the heavy boot of downtown pressing them down. John Connolly said Court Street "just seems to lose a billion dollars a year. ... They don't do much well."

Marty Walsh said he would seek to renegotiate the current teacher contract as soon as he got into office to try to bring about a longer school day, rather than waiting for the contract to expire.

John Barros called for creation of a single district and assignment system that would include both BPS and charter schools, to make it easier for parents to get their kids into the best school for them. Walczak called for universal pre-school. He noted that San Antonio, TX recently enacted a tax to do that. "We're Boston! We're better than that!"

Charlotte Golar Riche vowed to be a champion of all schools - BPS, charter, Metco and parochial.

Also at the forum, Mike Ross, who had earlier said he'd want to spend time looking at whether to allow more charter schools in Boston, said he would oppose lifting the cap - although he said he would support increasing the number of charter-like schools run by BPS.

Charles Yancey said it's time to stop painting BPS schools as failures - many are doing excellent work and Boston could have the best school system in America. He added he wants to put more resources in BPS to reduce class sizes and update aging buildings.

In attendance: John Barros, Dan Conley, John Connolly, Charlotte Golar Richie, Mike Ross, Bill Walczak, Marty Walsh and Charles Yancey. Felix Arroyo, Rob Consalvo and David Wyatt did not attend.

Specific questions and summarized candidate answers:

Currently, the lowest performing schools in the city, called Leverl 4 schools, get extra money and resources and a longer school day. But what about the 44% of BPS students who attend the next worst level?

Richie. More needs to be done.

Ross. Level 3 schools need to be extended-day schools. Orchard Gardens is Level 4 and what they are doing in that extended day is the difference. But don't just extend English by 20 minutes. Use extra two hours for art, dance, music, gym and computer science. How do you pay for it? How do you not? Youth violence goes up dramatically when school is out.

Walczak. Number 1 goal as mayor would be to close the achievement gap. We need excellent early childhood education, it's one of the most important things, if not the most important thing. Would appoint chief service officer to enlist school volunteers at lower grades to help kids learn to read. Decentralize BPS.

Walsh. Our schools need to be effective, need to be autonomous. I'm the only candidate that can work with the BTU to achieve the concessions we need to turn things around. We have some great teachers, we have some great principals, we have some great administration, the entire system is not in crisis.

Yancey. We must raise the level of expectation for students, teachers and, yes, for our parents. Parents should be given three days off from work to better interact with their kids. We have the resources in the school system today to ensure every school advances.

Barros.I will make sure that the level 3 schools have same tools as Level 4 schools. Partneships with private groups.

Conley. Would support bill to give turnaround powers to level 3 schools. 30,000 kids, so this really is urgent. I would move to hire great principals. DA's office has worked with the Marshall School, helping kids to learn to read.

Connolly. I'd like to see every Boston public school have the freedoms Level 4 schools have. My daughter is at the Trotter, a Level 4 school. Now it's in the midst of a dramatic turnaround, because of longer school day, hiring freedom to find the best teachers, before and after school programs and support services. Why would we want this at some schools but not all schools? Behemoth topdown bureaucracy has to go.

The teacher contract last year did nothing about longer school days or flexibility in teacher hiring. What would you want in the next contract?

Ross. I think it's unfortunate that the longer school days didn't happen. It was a failure on both sides. I don't expect to get the teacher endorsement in this election, but I expect to work with them. We need a tech-voke school that is second to none. We really absolutely have to get more early learning opportunities. And each school needs a principal able to lead.

Walczak. My wife is a BTU member. I released a blueprint for education today. We need to have autonomy and accountability in our schools. Extend the school day. Evaluations tied to professional development. High schools need to be reformed, to create a pipeline for jobs, collaboration with local businesses and institutions.

Walsh. I wouldn't wait for next contract to be up to start talking to the union. Teachers tired of being scapegoats for failure for schools to advance. I think this us-vs.-them mentality needs to go away. Support charter schools because I put our kids first.

Yancey. We have some great teachers in BPS and should not be scapegoating them. Would negotiate more flexibility with BTU. Key priorty of mine would be to reduce class size. Best investment we can make in the city is the education of our children. I would like to invest in facilities.

Barros. Extended learning time. Doesn't necessarily mean teachers have to work more hours. But does mean schools need flexibility to put programs together. We can no longer allow debates and the fights between adults to keep our children back. Summer and weekend enrichment programs.

Conley. I certainly respect and honor good teachers. Teachers will have a great ally in me. But would insist on more flexibility in the contract. Longer school day. Great teachers matter and great teachers need training. Multi-faceted results-oriented teacher evaluation system and compare it to the performance of their students.

Connolly. I'm a former teacher. I think teaching is sacred. I was an OK teacher, but I had the chance working with some incredibly great teachers. I have a big problem with us having the shortest school day of any American city. Let parents and students sit at the negotiating table. I'll take 'em on as mayor. I'll make sure our teachers are well paid, but I will get changes. If they resist, I'll have the superintendent make a "last best offer" and then implement it.

Richie. Longer school days, but augment school experience with arts and all sorts of things. Need Court Street away from a "command and control center" and make it more of a support center, let schools innovate.

Two recent studies found Boston charter schools outperform district schools. Would you support lifting the cap on charter schools?

Connolly. Yes. But unfortunately we're trapped in a toxic debate in Boston, charter vs. BPS. I want to convene all of our schools. We have some charters that do good job with special-needs kids and ESL students and some don't. Same for BPS schools. We'll make the compact work to bring these schools together, file legislation to lift cap and improve the BPS schools.

Richie. District schools, charters, pilot, parochial, Metco, I will champion them all. I'm not going to walk away from any schools. I would, with reservation, look at lifting the cap. With caveats: Financial implications. Longer school days will cost money. Transportation costs would be impacted significantly by more charter schools. But charters are innovative and creative, I would want to look at that. Partner public, charter and parochial schools.

Ross. At this moment, I would not extend the charter cap, but I would for in-district charters (run by BPS). Already have 25 charter schools. Charters were meant to be a real punch in the arm to BPS, which it was. One of biggest knocks on charters is that by definition, they're self selecting. But the kids who really, really need it, don't. Let's automatically enroll all kids in lottery for nearby charter schools.

Walczak. As co-founder of both a charter and a pilot school (similar in some ways to a charter, but under BPS control), I can tell you both do great work. I favor raising the cap, absolutely. But charters are just one of the tools to improve education overall. We need to make sure that the 56,000 students in BPS are getting absolutely the best education. Need to go back to lessons learned from charters: Greatness comes from autonomous schools with excellent leadership.

Walsh. Yes, would lift cap. But we need to strengthen best practices for all schools, regardless of source. We don't have enough discussion about what makes a good high school.

Yancey. I don't think we can afford to disinvest or abandon any one of the Boston public schools. We should benefit from experience of charters and see what is happening in the rest of the world, but would be a mistake to raise the cap. Invest more in BPS. Make BPS the best in the nation.

Barros. Yes. How can you limit something that works? But we need to claim charter schools as Boston public schools. The charter schools should be part of the Boston systems. One application process for all schools. We need one student assignment process, one based on communities, and where seats are needed.

Conley. Yes. Charter schools have proven themselves repeatedly, overwhelmingly and definitively. 70% of Boston charter schools are level 1. Why haven't we done so already? It's like making Apple limit the production of iPhones and making most of us use flip phones (at this point, Barros got out his phone and said "Dan, I have a flip phone").

Fourth-year special ed teacher asks: As mayor, what changes would you make to ensure Boston retains outstanding teachers and to lead from the classroom?

Walczak. I spent 36 years running Codman Square Health Center and set up two schools. Great leaders attract great workers. The most important thing would be to ensure all our schools have excellent leadership.

Walsh. First thing we have to do is ensure we have a pool of qualified teachers. Look across country for best teachers. Partner with local colleges. BPS Web site not user friendly, doesn't encourage young people to come here. We have to do something about housing costs in Boston; people who come here to teach want to stay here, but what if they can't afford to live here?

Yancey. Very strong mentorship program. Fair and transparent grievance procedure. Improve working conditions in our schools, improve facilities.

Barros. I was proud to help open a new teacher residency program. BPS students need to feel good about teachers. Provide professional learning communities across city. Top-notch instructional materials. Put teachers in leadership decisions.

Conley. Great teachers matter. Great teachers are not born, they need to be developed. And I think young people today today want that training. We live in a tremendous city that's attractive to young professionals, but we need to provide training and a good evaluation system. It's not all about money, it's about passion and desire to change and improve conditions.

Connolly. We need to restore teaching as a profession in Boston and not the assembly line that the teacher contract makes it. Cut bureaucracy that just seems to lose a billion dollars a year. Partner with local groups actively working to improve education. Don't leave it to Court Street. They don't do much well. A longer school day would give teachers more planning and training time.

Richie. I tought English in the Peace Corps, as ESL in the US. We want you to have strong, visionary leadership in the form of your principal. Resources, make sure you have the books and supplies you need. Collegial support. Plan to increase parental participation and training. We have to deal with poverty and violence outside the classroom.

Ross. It has to be a fair process how we reward and evaluate teachers. Not just test scores. Students also have themselves in teachers. We need more male teachers. A lot of charter teachers are burning out, what can we do about that?

Executive Director of Eliot School in JP asks: What about arts?

All the candidates said they are in favor of more arts in local schools. Connolly and Ross said the teacher contract makes that difficult, due to the length of the school day. Ross said that if teachers don't want to provide more arts education in a longer day, there are "ready and willing" private partners who would love to do so. Barros said some arts groups willing to work with local kids are frustrated by BPS bureacuracy, called for setting up an "arts improvement district" to raise funds for arts.

Something another candidate said tonight with which you disagree?

Yancey. Charters. Conley very unequivocal about fighting for charters. I think you reach a point where it's really easy to lower the level of expectations of Boston public schools. I think BPS has potential to be the best in America. Stop overly exagerating success of charter schools when BPS schools are doing some great work. New Mission High, 97% graduation rate, 94% went to college, that's a story that's not being told.

Barros. I will disagree that we should not move to embrace all types of schools in Boston. We need to create a district with the best options for every family. I will also disagree with those who say this is a battle between traditional schools and charter schools. Equal access for all families to all schools needed.

Conley. Yes, I am in favor of lifting the cap on charter schools. Doesn't mean BPS schools aren't doing good things - high net-worth parents sending kids to Eliot School in the North End. Charters are pushing innovation. Urgency needed. This is a social-justice issue. Justice doesn't begin in the courtroom, it begins in the classroom. Parents need more options.

Connolly. I was only one (of the city councilors running for mayor) who stood up and voted against teacher contract that didn't include longer school day. I think we should think about the goal here; Close the achievement gap and bring middle-class parents back into the system. Every school out to have arts, science, physical education and humanities on a regular basis. Every school out to have a real family-outreach strategy. As city councilor, I've taken on tough battles.

Richie. Worked with programs across the country. Charter schools work. Support in-district charter schools first. I don't want to get boxed in on this issue.

Ross. Couple people here, I was surprised to hear they would support legislation to change things without talking to teachers. I'm a little surprised haven't heard more talk about chosing a superintendent. Process has already begun. That would be a mistake. We have to wait until the next mayor is seated.

Walczak. No one else has raised the issue of early childhood education. We need that to close the achievement gap. Two years of quality pre-school are vital. Everyone should be able to get into a high-quality K1 program. It's kind of a no-brainer. The city of San Antonio, TX recently enacted a tax to ensure universal pre-school. We're Boston! We're better than that!

Walsh. Teachers contract, we can sit down and re-open contract now to bring new resources to Level 3 schools. Teachers go into the profession to educate children. [Referring to Connolly's earlier "assembly line comment]: Calling schools factories is unfair to teachers.


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Did someone just throw the BTA underneath me?

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Really appreciate getting this level of detail when I can't make it to the forums.

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this is the wrong debate - it should be about providing support for parents and families in the neighborhoods that tend to produce lower-performing students. The only people who want charters are the people who live in these neighborhoods because they want to be selective about their child's peers - everyone else would rather have neighborhood schools because they know there aren't as many troubled kids around.

it's the pilot schools that are being innovative - not the charters - the charters really just do test prep and provide a "safe" place for kids from rougher neighborhoods.

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The whole school system , with the exception of Boston Latin School , is FUBAR . You can't fix it because you have to grab the bull by the balls , and no one has the balls to do it.

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