WHEN IT COMES to electing a mayor willing to take on the huge challenges facing the long-struggling Boston Public Schools, it seemed like this was the year that the stars might finally align. For the first time in nearly four decades, an open mayor’s race features two finalists who are also parents of children in the city’s school system, and one is even a former teacher in the district. What’s more, Annissa Essaibi George and Michelle Wu have both issued lengthy education platforms at a time when millions of dollars in federal pandemic relief are flowing to the school department.

Education advocates say the plans issued by both candidates hit on many of the important areas in need of attention. But for all the breadth of their agendas, neither candidate lays out clear goals for improved student outcomes in a district where persistent low achievement and  chronic absenteeism prompted a scathing state review last year, with the threat of a state takeover of the schools still looming. Meanwhile, despite polls showing that improving the schools ranks at the top of voter concerns, education has often taken a backseat to other issues in the campaign, with Wu and Essaibi George citing scheduling conflicts in waving off efforts by several groups to hold a candidate debate focused solely on public education. 

“I don’t think we’ve had a robust discussion of education and what these candidates will do about it,” said former state education secretary Paul Reville, now a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “I expected it to be more of an issue.” 

In describing her deep commitment to the schools and understanding of what needs to change, Wu often points to the fact that she is now in her second round of involvement with the system. She previously served as legal guardian to her youngest sister who attended the Boston schools starting in 7th grade, while Wu’s two young sons are now students at the Sumner Elementary School in Roslindale near her home.  

Wu, who released a detailed 53-page education plan, says her overarching goals for the schools fit into four broad categories: making good on the city’s goal of universal pre-kindergarten for all three- and four-year-olds, development of a “children’s cabinet” in City Hall to coordinate all the ways municipal government touches the lives of young people, upgrading the city’s dilapidated school facilities, and improving vocational education, starting with the long-troubled Madison Park Technical Vocational High School. 

Boston Public Schools headquarters in Roxbury.

“We need stability, we need resources to get down to the school level, and we need holistic approaches that really address all the parts of our students’ and families’ lives that are converging in the classroom,” Wu said in an interview. “We’re past time to work urgently on closing the gaps that have persisted over a decade in BPS. We need a mayor who will ensure that Boston public schools and our young people are a clear priority, that we won’t run away from difficult decisions, but see BPS as the foundation for all our futures.” 

Essaibi George, in the education plan she issued, says the inconsistency in school quality in Boston “is directly linked to declining enrollment, a widening opportunity and achievement gap, and a lack of trust in BPS to provide our kids with the education they deserve.

She vows to push the district ahead on a plan for high school redesign and has pledged to roll out a strategic plan for Madison Park vocational high school in her first 100 days. She has stressed the need to strengthen literacy instruction, particularly in the early grades, and has called for the district to reduce the number of special education students who spend most of their day separated from mainstream classes – a point that Wu also emphasizes. 

The Boston schools were put under mayoral control 30 years ago under Ray Flynn, with the elected school committee replaced with a panel appointed by the mayor. The argument was that vesting the mayor with full control of the schools would lead to the sort of stability and accountability that had eluded the system. “I think I offer a first of its kind opportunity to actually fulfill that promise,” said Essaibi George, pointing to her deep understanding of the system not only as a graduate of it and parent of four children now in the city’s schools but from her 13 years as a teacher at East Boston High School. “As a candidate and as a mayor, there isn’t for me that learning curve,” she said. 

Min Wang, a K-1 teacher at the Mildred Avenue K-8 School in Boston, working with student Vanessa Grand Pierre. (Photo by Michael Jonas)

Edith Bazile, a retired Boston teacher and the former president of Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts, said the candidates’ plans cover a lot of ground but are still missing crucial detail. “What we haven’t heard yet is a whole education formula where they are laying out with specificity what they would do to turnaround Boston Public Schools, where there is talk of receivership,” she said.

The specter of receivership was raised by a state education department review released in March of last year that painted a devastating picture of the Boston schools. The 286-page report said special education services in Boston were in “systemic disarray,” it faulted the district for not creating “equitable conditions” for English language learners, and said “chronic absenteeism is staggering, particularly at the high school level.”  

All that was against a backdrop of low student achievement where progress had largely stalled, the state said. About 17,000 students, or nearly a third of the district’s population, attend one of 34 schools that perform in the bottom 10 percent of all schools statewide. Only 35 percent of Boston students in grades 3 through 8 met or exceeded expectations in English language arts on the 2019 MCAS, the last round of the state test before the pandemic. But the state review emphasized that the figure obscures even worse outcomes for student subgroups, with only 25 percent of Black students and 26 percent of those from low-income households meeting that proficiency benchmark. By contrast, 63 percent of Asian students and 62 percent of white students met or exceeded expectations in English. 

Both candidates acknowledge the urgency of addressing the issues raised in the state review, but education advocates say it’s disappointing that neither one has put forward measurable improvement goals for students to reach under their leadership.  

“We want the next mayor to set really clear outcomes and targets for gains for kids, but neither of the plans identify clear outcomes or targets for children, particularly for those who have been historically underserved,” said Will Austin, CEO of the Boston Schools Fund, one of the groups that pushed, unsuccessfully, for an education-focused debate in the mayor’s race.  

Austin points out that Wu has been willing to set ambitious goals in other areas, such as her vow to achieve carbon-neutrality by 2040, a decade ahead of the 2050 timeline set by former mayor Marty Walsh. 

Wu has emphasized the need for comprehensive “wraparound” services that address student needs, and was critical of a focus on achievement test results. “Of course it’s important to have accountability and to have the data driving our decision-making, but often when it comes to public education, we have myopically focused on metrics that don’t show the whole picture,” she said. “We have to address the whole child in our approach, knowing that what happens in the classroom is deeply tied to what our young people experience at home and in the community.”

Essaibi George acknowledged that her plan, too, sets no clear targets for student outcomes, and said those goals are something she would develop. 

Marinell Rousmaniere, president and CEO of EdVestors, said the education conversation in the race has failed to address squarely some of the main challenges facing the district. “I think there’s a lot to like about both their plans in terms of things that we have to be paying attention to, like facilities, like early childhood education, career technical education,” she said. “But we’ve made very little progress in the basic literacy and numeracy of our students. The gaps are pernicious. What are you, as the leader of the city and person ultimately responsible for this system, going to do about the very specific work it’s going to take to change that trajectory?”

In 1996, early in his 20-year run in office, then-Mayor Tom Menino vowed to make clear improvements in the schools, telling residents “judge me harshly” if that doesn’t happen. There were incremental gains in achievement as well as improvements in the dropout rate in the years that followed, though it’s hard to say that Menino’s stewardship of the schools was transformational – or that he was judged harshly by voters for the many shortcomings that persisted. 

But more than a decade after his well-known declaration, Menino did embrace the kind of clear goal-setting for student outcomes that education advocates say has been missing from this year’s race – even if it was a move that was, in many ways, forced on him. 

In 2008, Menino was confronted with data from a report that was going to be issued showing that only 35 percent of Boston Public Schools graduates from the class of 2000 who enrolled in higher education had earned a two- or four-year college degree within seven years. Rather than have the report land as a loud indictment of the district’s failure to adequately prepare students for college, its release came with a pledge by Menino to double the college completion rate among BPS graduates by 2017. 

The city launched an initiative dubbed Success Boston, a partnership with the Boston Foundation, the Private Industry Council, and more than three dozen area higher education institutions that deployed a coaching model and other efforts aimed at helping students “get ready, get in, and get through” college. The city did not reach Menino’s ambitious goal of doubling the college graduation rate by 2017, but in 2018 Success Boston reported that 52 percent of Boston high school graduates from the class of 2011 who enrolled in higher ed had received a degree within six years, a 50 percent increase from the earlier report. 

Setting a clear goal doesn’t automatically chart a path to reaching it, but it can serve to focus attention and accountability – and drive planning to achieve it, said Austin. “To be fair, these are campaign planks, they are not transition documents,” he said of the candidates’ education plans. Austin hopes concrete goals for student gains might emerge after the election. “Whoever wins,” he said, “will they create that moonshot moment and say we’re going to do this, like Menino did in 2008 when he said we’re going to dramatically increase the number of kids we’re going to graduate from college?”

Complicating the mayoral campaign discussion on education is a parallel debate unfolding about school governance in Boston. After years of complaints about residents being shut out of the conversation by the move to an appointed school committee, a non-binding question will also appear on the November 2 ballot asking voters whether they favor a return to an elected school board. 

Both candidates voted as city councilors to advance the question to the ballot, but both say they’ll vote against it because they don’t favor a fully elected school committee. There are important differences, however, in their positions on the issue. 

Essaibi George supports retaining an all-appointed board, with a majority of members named by the mayor and the other appointments made by the City Council. Wu favors a hybrid model, with voters electing a majority of the school committee and the mayor appointing the remainder. 

“Our current system isn’t working,” said Wu. “It has been in place the entire time that gaps have widened, and I have seen and felt the frustration as a parent and legal guardian in the system. We need democratic accountability and accountability for the mayor.” 

Her plan, however, would effectively remove the mayor from primary responsibility for the schools by having a majority of school committee members elected by voters. 

“I want that accountability,” said Essaibi George. “I think that the hybrid model is a wimpy way out.” 

Reville, the former state education secretary, said the school committee debate can end up distracting from the biggest challenges facing the district. “Governance is a favorite topic of discussion, though it doesn’t really do much in terms of the bottomline of student achievement. That’s the nitty gritty,” said Reville. “What are you going to do to increase graduation rates or literacy scores?” 

What’s more, he said, with any move toward an elected school committee or one that gives up some of the appointing authority over seats, “what you’re doing as a mayoral candidate is surrendering some of your power to make a difference. So it seems paradoxical to be saying that you want to be the leader, you want to make change within the schools, but you’re going to surrender some of the leverage you have with which to accomplish that.” 

Ruby Reyes, the executive director of the Boston Education Justice Alliance, said “there’s no one-shot answer” to the complicated problems plaguing the district. Given that, when it comes to the school system, she feels the candidates largely decided “to stay away from it.”  

“Boston has an identity crisis,” said Vernee Wilkinson of the nonprofit SchoolFacts Boston. “It cannot continue to claim it’s a mecca of education while K through 12 education continues to be failing. It’s like the young neglected stepchild of the city.”