Charter schools dominate debate among mayoral candidates at teachers union forum

Eleven mayoral candidates—many positioning themselves to be the next “education mayor”—ventured inside the Boston Teachers Union Hall Wednesday night where they pitched their ideas to overhaul the school system during a lively forum that at times put some candidates at odds with the city’s largest union.

From the start of the night, the divide between candidates who could potentially be friends or foes of the union became clear, as moderator David Bernstein, a Boston magazine writer, delved into what he called the “toxic” issue of charter schools. The union opposes more charter schools.

Asked whether charter schools were having a positive effect on the city’s school system, four candidates—state Representative Martin Walsh, former health care executive Bill Walczak, City Councilor John Connolly, and John Barros, a former School Committee member— raised their hands with little hesitation, eliciting murmurs in a room packed with hundreds of teacher union members, school administrators, and other interested parties.

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“It’s made us better,” said Barros, noting the competition has forced the school system to make changes to entice families to stay. “We need to be schools of choice.”

The forum was held as the Boston Teachers Union contemplates endorsing their first mayoral candidate in more than two decades. The last candidate who received an endorsement was the union’s former president, Edward Doherty, in 1991 when he unsuccessfully challenged then-Mayor Raymond Flynn.

Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley skipped the forum, telling organizers he had another commitment.

In a wide open race where just a few thousand votes could make a difference, the union’s endorsement could arm the chosen candidate with a small army of foot soldiers to help get out the vote. The union estimates that more than 5,000 of its members live in the city.

Before the forum started, the union circulated color-printed scorecards of where the candidates stood on “key education issues,” which boiled down to whether they supported a cap on charter schools and if they sought an endorsement from Stand for Children, a pro-charter national education group that pushes many issues opposed by teacher unions.

The card also noted whether candidates who are currently serving on the City Council voted in favor of the teacher union’s contract last year.

Based on the scoring, four candidates appeared to be front-runners for the endorsement—Councilors Felix G. Arroyo, Rob Consalvo, Michael Ross, and Charles Yancey—while another candidate, Connolly, appeared to be eliminated from contention.

Connolly, who received the Stand for Children endorsement, garnered two thumbs down for his support of lifting the charter school cap and for being the only city councilor to vote against the teachers contract.

During the forum, Connolly acknowledged his weak standing with the union, light-heartedly declaring when he was first called upon to speak, “as the only John Connolly supporter here ... .”

He received a few laughs but many in the crowd then began to rumble in disagreement when he said charter schools spurred the creation of similar schools in the city’s system, such as pilot schools, innovation schools, and turnaround schools.

Richard Stutman, the BTU president, said the union would decide on an endorsement after the make-it-or-break-it preliminary election on Sept. 24, which will whittle the field to two. Stutman said the union was holding off because at this point no single candidate would meet the union’s high bar for endorsement.

Under union rules, a candidate must receive backing from two-thirds of its political action board, then two-thirds of its executive board and finally two-thirds of its membership.

“There are three or four candidates we are looking at,” Stutman said in an interview after the forum, but he added, “We don’t have an expectation right now any candidate would have two-thirds support.”

During the forum, attendees applauded repeatedly for Ross, Arroyo, and Consalvo. The room burst into applause when Consalvo declared that he wanted the discussion about education to be “how do we get quality schools in every neighborhood” instead of getting hung up on charter schools.

Ross earned praised when downplayed the role of charter schools in the extended-day movement, noting that traditional schools with union teachers, such as the Edwards Middle School in Charlestown, also have extended days.

The charter school discussion took up so much time at the forum that candidates began to complain that they had no time to talk about their proposals to change the school system.

Finally, the forum switched to other topics, such as whether students are tested too much. All the candidates agreed that they were, even as they defended some level of standardized testing to ensure students were on the right track.

“I feel strongly that education needs to be more than just the test,” said Charlotte Golar Richie, a former state representative.