BOSTON Sensing a rare opportunity to shape policy here and beyond, charter school advocates are weighing significant investments in Boston’s first competitive mayoral race in a generation.
Two national advocacy groups with local affiliates — Stand for Children and Democrats for Education Reform — are considering involvement. And several wealthy benefactors of the local education reform movement say they’re committed to spending in the race.
“There’s a lot of money on the sidelines trying to figure out what to do about the Boston schools — and this mayoral election is critical,” said Richard Burnes, a semi-retired venture capitalist and longtime activist who plans to spend. If “we get one of these pseudo reformers who’s really in the pocket of the [teachers] union, that’ll be a disaster.”
Advocates — who are contemplating sizable, independently funded get-out-the-vote efforts — have not yet coalesced around a single candidate. And there is concern among some about trying to pick a winner in a sprawling, unpredictable field of 15 contenders.
But reformers say City Councilor John Connolly, who’s made education his signature issue, community activist Bill Walczak, who founded the Codman Academy Charter Public School in Dorchester, and state Rep. Martin Walsh, who helped start the Neighborhood House Charter School in Dorchester, have drawn the most interest in the early going.
The new mayor will take office at a critical juncture for the Boston Public Schools. Superintendent Carol Johnson is retiring this summer after six years at the helm. A new school assignment system is set to take effect in the fall of 2014. And research showing strong results at the city’s charter schools has emboldened reformers.
“We actually could be the first large urban district to truly close the achievement gap for African-American and Latino students living in poverty,” said Jason Williams, executive director of Stand for Children’s Massachusetts affiliate. “That’s a tremendous opportunity.”
Indeed, for stalwarts of the market-based reform movement that has swept the nation in recent decades — charter schools, standardized tests, increased teacher accountability — Boston has emerged as an important test case.
Success has proved elusive in America’s urban centers. And reformers say Boston’s robust network of academic and nonprofit partners and relatively small student body offer a chance for a breakthrough.
Eager for that breakthrough, business leaders, foundation heads and advocates at the heart of the movement say they’ve been frustrated by the administration of outgoing Mayor Thomas Menino.
They praise him for coming around to charter schools in 2009, after years of opposition, and pressing for greater flexibility in traditional public schools in recent years. But they say he’s moved too slowly and failed to take a sufficiently hard line with the Boston Teachers Union.
“The criticism is that he stayed much too long with the incremental strategy, believing that without really disturbing the structure very much, you could kind of make your way to progress, and that’s just wrong,” said Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, which has advocated for charter schools and broader education reform but will remain neutral in the mayor’s race.
Advocates who plan to engage in the contest say they want a full-throated reformer in the mold of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg or Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. And they argue that the city, as a whole, is ready to embrace that sort of figure.
A February poll commissioned by a Democrats for Education Reform offshoot found Boston voters ranking education as the most important issue facing the city. Respondents voiced strong support for charter schools and said they favor a “complete overhaul” or “major reforms” of Boston schools over “minor reforms” or “no changes” by a margin of 69-27.
“People want change — significant change,” said Liam Kerr, Massachusetts state director for Democrats for Education Reform. “Everybody knows there’s huge dissatisfaction. This is the chance for it to totally bubble up… We’re looking for strong leadership and accountability.”
Kerr said his group, which spent about $12,000 on an independent expenditure campaign backing state Senate candidate Nick Collins in a special election this spring, is “strongly considering” a role in the mayor’s race.
The push to elect a reform mayor is drawing sharp criticism, though, from Boston Teachers Union president Richard Stutman, who said the business-powered effort reeks of “corporate infringement on good, healthy public policy debate.”
The argument echoes a larger critique of the education reform movement offered up by national union figures and other defenders of traditional public education.
They say the funders of the movement — groups like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Foundation, run by the family that founded Wal-Mart — have engaged in a hubristic effort to reshape American education, casting unfair blame on teachers and producing meager results in the process.
Stutman said his union will counter any education reform push in the mayor’s race. BTU plans to endorse a candidate — and engage in phone banking, door knocking and other get-out-the-vote efforts — before voters narrow the field to two in the September preliminary election.
At stake, he said, is nothing less than the “survival of the public schools,” arguing that continued growth of charters will draw resources away from traditional schools and lead to increasing inequality in the system.
Reformers do want a mayor who will push state legislators to lift the cap on charters. “The mayor can have a big effect on that,” said Chuck Longfield, a businessman who runs the education-focused Longfield Family Foundation and plans to spend in the mayor’s race.
But advocates want something more. They want an administration that will completely rethink public education: decentralizing the school system and shifting power to principals.
It is an article of faith in the reform movement that a principal with the flexibility to hire and fire teachers and otherwise dictate what happens in the building is the single most powerful change agent in public education.
Of course, breaking up the central office and winning flexibility at the school level is no small challenge. Union contracts and bureaucratic power present major roadblocks. But at least some of the mayoral candidates are speaking the reformers’ language.
“Picking the new superintendent will be one of the most important decisions the next mayor will make,” Connolly said. “I want someone who’s going to tackle the bureaucracy, decentralize it and push the resources down to the school site level.
“That’s very different from what we typically get,” he continued. “We typically find people who are effective at working around dysfunction in large bureaucracies. I want someone who’s actually going to remove the dysfunction.”
Walczak, another mayoral candidate eyed by reformers, said he also supports decentralization. And he voiced strong support for charter schools. But he said charters must be viewed as part of a larger system. And he worried about the increasingly sharp tone of the education debate.
“I came to Boston as busing was starting and obviously education became incredibly politicized and really damaged … relations in the city,” he said. “My goal as mayor will be to make sure that we have a healthy debate on how do we utilize all the resources we have to make sure that all of our children get a good education. That, to me, is the honest debate.”
The candidates’ visions for the Boston Public Schools will get a first airing at a June 5 forum at the Edward Brooke Charter School in Roslindale hosted by Stand for Children and several other reform-minded groups.
Ten major candidates for mayor have agreed to participate — Connolly, Walczak, Walsh, Felix Arroyo, Dan Conley, Rob Consalvo, Charlotte Golar Richie, Mike Ross, John Barros and Charles Yancey.
Williams, of Stand for Children, said the group — separate and apart from the forum — will quiz the candidates on their education positions and then decide whether and how to get involved in the mayor’s race.
If Stand does hit the campaign trail, it will bring a reputation for a savvy, hardball brand of politics.
Founded in 1996 by Jonah Edelman, the son of a well-known civil rights activist, the Oregon-based Stand has chapters in 11 states.
In Indiana, the group helped pass a bill ensuring performance-based evaluations for teachers. And in Washington, it worked to elect allies to the state legislature and to school boards in Issaquah and Tacoma.
Power politics is a calling card. In 2011, Edelman told a gathering at the Aspen Ideas Festival that Illinois teachers unions were concerned about legislation the group championed that year because Stand could “jam this proposal down their throats.”
Edelman later apologized for the comment. But the measure had already passed.
In Massachusetts, the 10-year-old Stand chapter made headlines last year when it forced teachers unions to give up certain seniority rights after threatening to put the issue on the ballot.
Should Stand get involved in the mayor’s race, it will have at least some local support. Burnes, the venture capitalist, said he’s spoken with the group about its nascent plans and will back any campaign effort. Other wealthy supporters of charter schools tell WBUR they are also interested.
But if education reform activists make a substantial investment in the race, it seems unlikely they will be alone.
A once-in-a-generation opportunity to fill the corner office at City Hall is sure to draw plenty of attention from interest groups — not all of them friendly to the reformers’ agenda.