Menino boosts charter schools

Shift puts mayor in line with rivals

'The status quo won't work. We've got to make real changes.' -- Mayor Thomas M. Menino "The status quo won't work. We've got to make real changes." -- Mayor Thomas M. Menino (Wendy Maeda/ Globe Staff)
By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / June 10, 2009

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Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who for years has expressed deep reservations about one of the most fundamental innovations in public education, abruptly shifted course yesterday and said he wants to turn the city's poorly performing schools into new charter schools.

Menino said he would file state legislation that would allow the city to bypass union approval and transform low-performing schools into "in-district" charter schools controlled by the mayorally appointed School Committee.

If the bill does not pass by the end of this legislative session - July 2010 - Menino said he would call for lifting a cap on traditional, independently controlled charter schools and allowing them to spread faster.

"The status quo won't work," Menino told hundreds of chief executives at a luncheon of the Boston College Chief Executives Club at the Boston Harbor Hotel. "We've got to make real changes."

The plans represented a sudden shift after 16 years in which the mayor has argued that the funding formula for charters is unfair. For each student who attends a charter school, a portion of state aid gets redirected from the city school system to the charter school.

Menino said his ideas were motivated in part by President Obama's declaration that he is making available $5 billion in grant money to cities that are seeking to revive low-performing schools. Obama has also warned that mayors who limit new charter schools could be penalized in receiving discretionary federal aid.

Menino's plan would strip the lowest-performing schools of Boston Teachers Union's seniority and hourly work rules, giving the mayor a stronger hand in controlling them. "We want to replicate what's working and we need the flexibility to do that," School Superintendent Carol R. Johnson said.

The mayor's plans were roundly condemned by the Boston Teachers Union, which said the mayor should focus on improving existing public schools. The union had no comment on a companion proposal to establish a merit pay system for teachers.

"I am surprised that he has bowed to the political winds to change his position overnight, but again there's an election going on," said Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union. "And elections make people do funny things."

Many in Boston have expressed deep dissatisfaction with the city's public schools. A recent Boston Globe poll showed that the schools were rated as fair, poor, or very poor by 59 percent of residents. Thirty-nine percent of the respondents with children said they had contemplated moving to a community with better schools.

Menino's rivals in the mayor's race, city councilors Michael F. Flaherty and Sam Yoon, took a dim view of the mayor's plan, saying he was merely following their proposals, released earlier this week, that called for more charter schools in Boston.

But business leaders and charter school advocates praised the mayor's plans, calling them a welcome reversal.

"Politically, it's extraordinary for the mayor of the city of Boston to come out for charter schools like this," said former Senate president Thomas F. Birmingham, who helped write the 1993 Education Reform Act that paved the way for the state's first charter schools. "The mayor has been a long-time, major opponent of charter schools, and I think this is an exciting proposition."

Paul S. Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, said Menino was finally fed up with the Boston Teachers Union's opposition to new "pilot schools" in the city. Those schools, which are unionized but given flexibility in their governance, budget, staffing, and curriculum, were originally intended as a compromise between union leaders and school-reform advocates.

"He's reached the end of the road in having to bargain with the union to move forward," said Grogan, whose organization supports charter and pilot schools. "They've driven the mayor into a different posture."

Some said Menino was also falling into line with an increasing number of mayors across the country who are embracing charter schools, including Michael R. Bloomberg in New York and Adrian M. Fenty in Washington, D.C. Menino was "falling behind," said Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, which supports charter schools.

Menino's said "in-district" charter schools would not need union approval to open, though the teachers could later vote to form a union. They would offer flexible work hours and rules, to attract better teachers and tailor the school day to students' needs, he said. By taking over the worst-performing schools, Menino also hopes to assuage critics who say charters "skim" the best students from district schools.

Two mayoral candidates have been vocal in calling for more charter schools. Yoon announced earlier this week that he is planning to introduce a City Council measure today that would lift the funding cap on high-performing charter schools.

"I'm glad that after 16 years, he is picking up the pace on education and finally talking about transforming our schools, and that is the benefit of a competitive election," Yoon said of the mayor.

Flaherty's education plan, released earlier this week, also advocated for more charter schools. "I'm glad that he's finally embracing charter schools, it's just that his leadership is about 16 years too late," Flaherty said.

A fourth candidate, South End developer Kevin McCrea, said he opposes charter schools because "we need to make all the schools better."

Aides said that the city would hash out in a contract the key details of the mayor's merit pay proposal for teachers.

Some said the mayor's charter-school plans seemed like a halfway measure. They said state law already gives him the power to open new Horace Mann charter schools.

"One wonders, why wait?" Stergios said. "Why push it off to the Legislature? It's already in the law, he can do it now."