The Fight for Boston Public Schools

Boston Eyes “Unified Enrollment” System
What Happened in Other Cities?

busOur friends at the Boston parent group QUEST (Quality Education for Every Student) are pursuing the answers to important questions about Boston’s plans for a “unified enrollment” system that would include public and charter schools. Many Boston Public School (BPS) parents have serious concerns about a lack of transparency and public accountability in the Gates Foundation-funded Boston Compact project. QUEST posted about these concerns on its Facebook page: “When the mayor announced his plan for a new assignment process called Unified Enrollment, QUEST became concerned. What are the consequences of changing a new assignment process with no public analysis or real public engagement and no data to show that the current assignment process needs to be changed?”

It seems more and more that being a Boston Public School parent means spending many hours, days and weeks fighting doggedly for the kind of transparency and accountability that should be a given in a public education system. QUEST used the Massachusetts Public Records Act to request documents on the Unified Enrollment plan and process. The released documents are linked here. As QUEST points out, these documents raise many more questions than they answer.

Boston parent Mary Pierce writes in her “Public School Mama” blog about Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s plans to close 36 public schools, a quarter of the schools in the district. She says, “this proposal is not being driven by the wishes of Mayor Walsh’s constituents. These plans are not being hammered out in open meetings where the citizens of Boston can hold policy makers accountable. These decisions are being made in closed meetings with the Gates Foundation and the Walton Foundation where Mayor Walsh is hoping to receive funding for his education agenda.”
Mary Pierce’s blog was picked up by Diane Ravitch and Esquire’s Charlie Pierce (no relation), which prompted a denial by Mayor Walsh: The Mayor has never said, nor does he have a plan to close 36 schools,” Laura Oggeri, Walsh’s chief communications officer, said in a statement. The denial yielded a rebuttal from Pierce: “The Mayor has said that he plans to ‘consolidate’ schools. How can he consolidate schools if he does not close some? Oh, wait-if he leases some of the ‘consolidated’ school buildings to charter schools then the buildings will technically remain open. They just won’t be Boston Public Schools.”

Wealthy donors, like Mark Zuckerberg, and foundations, like Gates and Walton, have funded similar unified, or universal, enrollment systems in other cities, including Philadelphia and Newark. The Newark plan, called “One Newark” led to chaos and confusion, according to a report by NBC New York. “A final step in the process appeared to flunk for hundreds of families. More than 600 parents sat in line for hours at a Newark Vocational High SchoolThursday hoping to find out where their children are enrolled, but some never even made it through the door. Newark Mayor Ras Baraka had this to say about the One Newark plan: “We’re saying that we’re giving parents a choice when we’re really taking their choice away from them. It’s upsetting.

The pattern in other cities has been district school closures and charters opened in their place. The public records documents confirm this is the plan for Boston too. What we will be left with is low-income communities of color like Hyde Park (which already had two school closed this year) having nothing but charters, with the high needs students with disabilities and English language learners sent to an increasingly under-resourced district school.


School Committee Vote Draws Outrage, Grief

By Jacqueline King and Ann O’Halloran

Hundreds of parents, teachers and students protested school closures at the Dec. 15 Boston School Committee meeting. (Photo by Ann O’Halloran)

Ignoring the passionate pleas and hard evidence presented by hundreds of students, parents and teachers this fall that their schools should remain open, the mayor-appointed School Committee voted unanimously on Dec. 15 to close, merge or allow charter takeovers of 20 Boston schools.

The crowd of hundreds repeatedly interrupted the meeting with chants of “Shame on you!” and “No vote to close schools!” but the members pressed on toward their approval of School Superintendent Carol Johnson’s so-called “Redesign and Reinvestment Proposal.” Many saw the hours-long meeting as a political show conducted by the school board with a foregone conclusion; calls for a return to an elected School Committee, whose members could be held accountable, were met with wild applause.

“The School Committee did not listen to the pleas, cries, outbursts, and suggestions by parents, teachers, supporters, and students,” Bryan Moore, a student at Excel High School, said the day after the vote. “The words of the community seem to have gone in one ear and out the other. What has happened to the once great school system I have come to know and appreciate?” Some people wept as they left the auditorium of English High School; others expressed outrage.

Johnson and Mayor Menino claim the closings and mergers are necessary to close a $63 million school budget gap. Yet they and the school board members repeatedly fail to connect the budget shortfall to the fact that Boston will lose an estimated $64 million to privately run charter schools this year, minus some short-term reimbursements. Meanwhile, 16 additional charter schools – some with little or no track record – are waiting in the wings, ready to take over shuttered public school buildings and drain more students and funds from the public schools.

Nor, apparently, has the mayor sought funds from other sources in the city budget or the private sector. When he met with the Chamber of Commerce the day before the vote, one might have thought the mayor would ask these wealthy businesses to step up to the plate and help out the schools. Instead, Menino was there to assure them that the budget crisis would be solved by closings and cutbacks. Yet private developers and corporations receive large tax breaks every year in Boston, such as the $50 million in city and state “blight” tax breaks Liberty Mutual was awarded earlier this year for its proposed tower in the prosperous Back Bay.

City Councilor Charles Yancey, one of the few elected officials to speak Wednesday night, told the committee, “We are going in the wrong direction!…We must stop balancing the budget on the backs of the schoolchildren! I urge you to vote no on the proposal – this is not a reinvestment, it’s a disinvestment!”

Jireh Wilfred, 17, said the school closings will harm children’s lives, adding, “The struggle continues!”

Many who spoke in the hours of public testimony described the harmful impact the school closings could have on children’s lives and the surrounding communities.  Jireh Wilfred, 17, whose sister teaches at the Emerson School, said, “You are destroying relationships! Can you live with the fact that you are destroying the futures of men- and women-to-be? They might go off, and sell drugs or join gangs or die! Even if this vote passes, we are not going away. The struggle continues!”

The closings and mergers will have a sharply unequal impact, falling most heavily on students of color, English language learners, students with special needs, and low-income areas of the city.

These disruptions are only the beginning of what’s in store for Boston. The School Department has announced that it intends to drastically change the student assignment plan to include more zones, in order to cut bus routes and transportation costs. It also intends to demand significant concessions from teachers concerning health insurance, length of school day, and other measures. Sam Tyler, of the business-backed Boston Municipal Research Bureau, has said that more public schools will have to be closed in the next year or two.

Citizens for Public Schools stands with the students, parents, and teachers of Boston in opposing these school closings, mergers, cutbacks and contract concessions. The fight for the Boston Public Schools will continue in many forms in the months and years to come. Similar conflicts are occurring throughout the country, in suburban and rural, as well as inner-city systems.

In Massachusetts, we need a coordinated effort to change public school policy at the state level, since that is where policy is currently being determined. Legislation passed last January—the so-called Act Relative to the Achievement Gap—removed the cap on the number of charter schools in “underperforming districts” and reinforced the evaluation of schools according to MCAS scores. We need legislative reform to make progressive changes in funding for schools, reinstate the cap on charter schools, and reform the use of MCAS so that a single paper-and-pencil test is not used to justify the closing of schools. Ultimately, as Diane Ravitch said in her recent Boston appearance: This is a battle about the very existence of public schools.


Jacqueline King is a CPS Board Member and Co-Editor of The Backpack. Ann O’Halloran is a CPS Board Member and 2007 Massachusetts History Teacher of the Year.

More on the Fight for Boston Public Schools

  • Click here for a list of all schools to be affected, the demographics of those schools, and click here for previous CPS coverage.
  • Go to statements from parents, teachers and students at Boston School Committee meetings here.
  • For a cogent analysis of the charter school agenda in Boston, read a post by “Jamaicaplainiac” titled The Real Charter School Agenda in Boston.
  • Go to coverage of Boston in the Backpack newsletter, here.
  • Gallery of photos from Boston meetings, here.
  • Jim Horn of the Schools Matter blog has written a powerful report on the Dec. 15, 2010 Boston School Committee meeting. He writes, “The children in the audience last night also saw the promise of a democracy renewed in the strong, eloquent voices of their friends, teachers, parents, bus drivers, school helpers, and community activists, who are now galvanized by the decision of the Mayor, the Chamber of Commerce, and the corporate foundations to turn their backs on so many amazing school programs and committed teachers and energized parents.” Read the full piece here.
  • Read a “Manifesto” co-authored by Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee and other “education leaders” and signed by Boston Superintendent Carol Johnson. The Manifesto says the way to fix schools is to, for example, “eliminate arcane rules such as ‘seat time,’ which requires a student to spend a specific amount of time in a classroom with a teacher rather than taking advantage of online lessons and other programs.” (Shortly after signing this manifesto, Joel Klein left his job as chancellor of New York City schools to work for an online education company owned by Rupert Murdoch.)
  • Read a flyer from the Boston Teachers Union charging city leaders with meeting secretly on what to do with “surplus” school buildings slated for closing, here.