Mixed results as confidence in schools appears to erode

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / November 1, 2009

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City Councilor Michael F. Flaherty Jr., in his quest to unseat Mayor Thomas M. Menino, often rattles off an array of disparaging statistics about the state of the Boston public schools: high dropout rates, too few graduates who finish college, and far too many underperforming schools.

By contrast, Menino, who long ago dubbed himself the education mayor, talks glowingly of accomplishments and national awards. He points to a dramatic rise in MCAS scores, new school buildings, revamped classroom lessons - all of which he believes contributed to a 10 percent increase in the number of parents who sought to enroll their children in the city’s schools this year.

Throughout the campaign, education has repeatedly flared up as a point of contention. And even Menino, despite his rosy portrayal, has acknowledged more work remains to improve the schools. Asked by Flaherty in a debate to rank the system, Menino gave it a “B,’’ saying “I’ll be generous.’’ Flaherty gave it an “F.’’

As the candidates fire back and forth over education, public confidence in the school system appears to have eroded. In a Globe poll last month, half of the respondents with children said they have considered moving out of Boston because of the schools, up from 39 percent in May.

Data on the Boston schools often illustrate mixed results, offering political ammunition for both sides.

The high school dropout rate, which has bounced up and down throughout the mayor’s tenure, stands at 7.6 percent, more than twice the state average and similar to the rate when the mayor took office in 1993, according to the most recent state data. Yet the city’s dropout rate is notably lower than the rate in other cities across the state, such as Fall River and Lawrence.

State standardized test scores have been rising in Boston, but the gains generally have not been significant enough to meet improvement goals set under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, causing nearly three-quarters of the city’s 135 schools to be identified last month as in need of improvement, corrective action, or restructuring - one of the highest rates in the state. Statewide, however, more schools every year are being labeled under the federal law for similar reasons.

Menino is convinced the school system is on an upward swing.

“When I took over as mayor, I inherited a system in turmoil,’’ Menino said in an interview. “No new schools built in decades, classrooms lacked textbooks, school yards were not safe, buildings in disrepair, high schools losing accreditation. The system was a disgrace.’’

But Flaherty, who has three school-age children in the public schools, describes the system as “an embarrassment,’’ and says there should be many more high-quality schools than there are. He has repeatedly cited weak schools as a rationale for his candidacy, and late last week, he mailed a flier to voters featuring a picture of a grim-faced Menino, a reminder that the mayor urged residents in 1996 to “judge me harshly’’ on progress in the schools, and an outline of Flaherty’s plans to improve education in the city.

“Too many young families have left the city because they didn’t get their top choices in the [Boston school system] or were left unassigned,’’ Flaherty said in an interview. “We need to create more quality options.’’

Each candidate has offered different education proposals.

Menino would convert the city’s underperforming schools into “in-district’’ charter schools, where education innovation should flourish, he said, because the schools would initially be union-free and would have greater flexibility in curriculum, staffing, and budget decisions.

The mayor has long assailed traditional charter schools, which run independently of local school systems, because the city loses a portion of state aid for each student that chooses to attend one, which amounts to nearly $50 million annually in Boston. Menino shocked the political and education establishment in June in announcing his in-district charter school proposal by adding a threat: If the Legislature rejected his idea, he would fully embrace traditional charter schools.

Menino’s conversion grew, in part, out of frustration with the city’s teachers union. He characterized the union as obstructing change by resisting an expansion of college-level courses in high school and refusing to vote on a wage freeze that could have prevented layoffs.

Flaherty, on the other hand, says he is not bothered by the amount of state aid the city loses to charter schools and argues they are a worthwhile investment to keep families with children in the city. He supports raising the state limit on the number of charter schools allowed to operate in the city.

“We have some of the best charter schools in the state and in this city,’’ Flaherty said. “We should have a plethora of different educational opportunities.’’

Flaherty has also unveiled an array of education proposals, such as providing more SAT preparation programs, expanding early childhood education, creating a college-preparatory high school for low-income youth, as well as providing more K-8 schools to poor neighborhoods, more academically-challenging classes in elementary schools, and intensifying partnerships between the schools and universities.

Menino’s record on education has been the subject of considerable debate. Unlike many other urban mayors, Menino has the power to appoint all members of the School Committee, and he plays a key role in selecting the superintendent.

Even one of the system’s proudest accomplishments - the relatively high number of high school graduates who go to college - lost considerable luster last year with the release of a report that found that only one-third of those who enrolled in college actually earned degrees. The finding, based on high school graduates in 2000, prompted the mayor to set an ambitious goal of doubling the college completion rate.

The mayor’s defenders say that he deserves credit for getting results in a district where about three-quarters of its 56,000 students come from low-income families, 19 percent cannot speak English fluently, and more than three-quarters are black or Latino, two groups that have historically struggled in school nationwide.

“Mayor Menino, after all these years, has turned around the Boston public schools,’’ said Kenneth K. Wong, chairman of Brown University’s Department of Education. Wong coauthored a 2007 book on urban education that found impressive gains in student literacy scores in Boston when compared with other school systems.

The political mudslinging has prompted the Boston Teachers Union, which has often clashed with the mayor, to come to his defense.

“Although we have disagreements with the mayor now, he has been a solid supporter of the schools for 16 years,’’ said Richard Stutman, president of the union, which has not endorsed a mayoral candidate. “We have nothing to be ashamed of. We do a good job, but nothing is perfect.’’

Education specialists say the school system has improved over the 16 years Menino has been in office, but some contend the pace of change has been too slow.

“Having a mayor in control of education is not a silver bullet,’’ said Jane Hannaway, director of the Education Policy Center at the Urban Institute, a public policy research group in Washington, D.C., noting that no one has found the solution to fixing urban schools. “If there were some quick way to do it, it would spread like wildfire across the country.’’