THE BOSTON PUBLIC SCHOOLS are a mess, but it’s not clear what will or should be done about it. 

That’s the situation as the district approaches a moment of reckoning with state education officials, who have completed the second comprehensive review of the district in two years and are now contemplating what steps to take, including a possible move to put the district into state receivership.

In March 2020, a state review painted a dire picture of the school district. It pointed to a huge swath of schools performing in the bottom 10 percent statewide, special education services “in systemic disarray,” and persistent problems delivering instruction to English language learners, a problem that had the district under federal oversight. Based on the harsh report, the state and city struck a “memorandum of understanding” that outlined a number of areas to be worked on. State Education Commissioner Jeff Riley stopped short of recommending receivership for the district, but seemed to leave that door open, noting that such a move “could be applied here given these vast and persistent challenges.” 

Fast forward two years and the fact that the district is now the focus of another comprehensive state review is entirely a matter of Riley’s doing. Nothing forced his hand to announce two months ago that the state would again conduct such a probe. That’s why the talk of receivership has taken on a fever pitch. It’s hard to imagine that Riley ordered a new review in order to then do nothing with it. 

It’s difficult to envision the upshot of the review being Riley standing pat and saying the state will simply continue to monitor Boston’s progress in achieving goals laid out in the 2020 MOU, including improvements in student transportation, special ed services, and facilities upgrades as well as student outcome gains in its lowest performing schools. 

State education commissioner Jeff Riley. (Photo by Llyr Johansen)

But what he will recommend, say lots of those who have been part of conversations in recent days, remains “fluid.” The new report is done and has been shared with city officials. The issue of what to do with the Boston schools is likely to be discussed at next week’s state board of education meeting. 

In the interval since the 2020 review, accuracy of the district’s reporting on graduation rates has been called into question, explosive revelations about bullying and sexual abuse by students at the Mission Hill K-8 School have raised new questions about systemic breakdowns in oversight of schools, and yet another superintendent is heading for the door in what’s becoming a revolving door of district leadership. 

Mayor Michelle Wu has argued forcefully against the idea of state receivership. She has spoken generally of continuing to “partner” with the state to drive improvements. What’s unclear is whether she and Riley will come to agreement on further steps the district must take and added oversight the state will exercise, or he looks instead to the unprecedented move of seizing control of the state’s largest school district. 

“Honestly, I don’t know what the right way forward is,” said Roxann Harvey, chair of the Boston Special Education Advisory Group. When it comes to the possibility of state receivership, she said her group has members who fall on both sides. “One thing I think we all agree with,” Harvey said, “is things like the denial of special education services systematically at the Mission Hill school – we don’t think these are isolated issues. Special education needs significant change to start to service all our students.”

Mary Tamer, state director of Democrats for Education Reform, said it’s one thing for Wu and other city leaders to oppose receivership. She said they haven’t clearly laid out what the alternative path looks like. 

“I have heard Mayor Wu and some city councilors speak out against receivership,” said Tamer, a former Boston school committee member. “Then what is their plan to rectify this organizational dysfunction that is failing tens of thousands of kids in the city of Boston?” 

Paul Reville, the former state education secretary who helped craft the 2010 law allowing state takeover of districts, said in an interview on Tuesday that receivership would be the wrong move for Boston. He questioned the state’s capacity to run the district and pointed to the limited success the state has had with takeovers beyond some positive results in Lawrence – where Riley himself served as the first receiver. 

Reville says building off the agreement the state reached with the city two years ago is the better course. “Some kind of agreement for collaboration where each party focuses on areas where they have particular strengths – that’s what’s needed now,” said Reville, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who unspooled his argument in a Globe op-ed this morning. 

When the state and the district announced the 2020 MOU, Riley said, “We’re deviating from the old playbook, trying to create something new to get good results for kids.” Two years later, Riley seems to have concluded there is a need for a new play. What it will look like is now the question.