BOSTON — City Councilor John Connolly is, in some respects, the picture of the traditional Boston politician.
He is white. He is of Irish descent. He is the son of a one-time elected official.
Those bullet points matter. They say something meaningful about the upbringing of the man atop the polls in the mayoral race.
And for Connolly, one of a dozen candidates for the post, they make for real political advantages – and, in this increasingly diverse city, real disadvantages.
But the shorthand has its limits.
If Connolly, 40, grew up in a white, Irish enclave, his career can be read in part as an attempt to push beyond it – to broaden his experience and his electoral appeal.
And if his profile suggests a standard-issue politics, it misleads.
Connolly, who has made education reform his signature concern, is eyeing a schools shake-up as ambitious as anything on offer in the mayoral campaign.
‘Growth Through Suffering’
Connolly grew up in Roslindale. His mother Lynda was a judge — smart, poised and deeply interested in politics; Connolly says she could have been a U.S. senator.
His father Michael was a state representative for six years. And he went on to serve as secretary of state for 16 years.
There was always a gaggle of kids on the street in Connollys’ neighborhood. Back doors were unlocked.
But if there was something idyllic about the place, Connolly suggests, “there was always a sense, growing up, of how divided the city was” on racial and economic lines.
Connolly’s first big venture outside the neighborhood came with matriculation at the elite Roxbury Latin boys school, where teachers pushed him to what he calls his “absolute limit” intellectually and academically. “I loved it there,” Connolly says. “But there was definitely a lot of growth through suffering.”
He went on to Harvard University. And after graduation, he taught at the Nativity Mission School on the Lower East Side of Manhattan for two years and the Boston Renaissance Charter Public School in Boston for one.
Connolly wanted to instruct. But he also wanted to learn something from a student body that was mostly poor, black and brown. “I think it was a desire,” he says, “to really understand this other part of my city that was raging when I was growing up.”
Connolly says he was not a great teacher. And the Renaissance, he says, was “an unmitigated disaster.” A proponent of charter schools, he says he knows firsthand that they can fail.
But the kids who landed at Renaissance, Connolly says, came out of a traditional school system that had offered an “appalling” education. Most of the students, he says, were smart kids who had been allowed to coast — who’d gone from one grade to the next without learning some of the most basic rules of grammar.
And at Nativity Mission in New York, Connolly says, he’d seen the value of the all-out approach the best charters can offer: students were at school until 2:30, they stayed for mandatory after-school programming until 4:30 or 5:00 and after dinner they came back for an evening study hall.
Connolly’s teaching career, if impactful, was brief. He got his law degree at Boston College in 2001 and spent several years working as a lawyer, a job he didn’t much like.
He made his first bid for City Council in 2005 and fell short. But he won a citywide seat on the panel in 2007 and has twice won re-election.
Connolly, who lives in West Roxbury with his wife and three children, has spent considerable time on environmental issues on the council. But he is best known for his education work.
In 2011, he made a surprise visit to four school cafeterias and found expired food in the freezers — an incident he turned into the first television advertisement of his mayoral campaign.
Last year, he was the lone vote against the teachers contract, citing its failure to extend the school day. And he joined with five other elected officials to present an alternative to the school assignment plans then under consideration by the School Committee.
The school assignment work, in particular, brought him into living rooms across Boston. And that meant plenty of substantive conversations about education. But it also brought something unexpected: a flood of phone calls from parents worried about a kid left on a bus or an individualized special education plan gone awry.
“I didn’t understand the void we were stepping into,” he says. “There was nobody who did education in more than a big, bumper stickery, banner way.”
The network of supporters he’s built through his education and other work seems to be paying dividends. A WBUR poll out last week divided the city into four regions. And Connolly was the only candidate to score double-digit support in each of those regions.
‘The One Place’
If the West Roxbury politician can ride his citywide coalition into the corner office, Boston will have a mayor bent on a fundamental reshaping of the Boston schools.
Connolly is among the most prominent local supporters of a market-based education reform movement that has swept the country in the last couple of decades with the help of powerful patrons like Bill Gates and President Obama.
The movement has pushed for charter schools, better use of data and more flexible teachers contracts.
Its impact on public policy is unmistakable — it animated President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law and President Obama’s Race to the Top.
But it has yet to score a big success in urban America – it has yet to close the achievement gap separating white and Asian-American students from blacks and Latinos in a major American city.
“Listen, it’s the story of ed reform,” Connolly says. “There are small stories of success within big districts, but nothing brought to scale. And I readily acknowledge that.”
Still, Connolly insists, Boston “is the one place that is poised to actually do this at-scale across an entire system.”
The city’s schools system, he says, is a relatively small one. And Boston has a robust network of universities and nonprofit partners that can help in the effort.
But the push will only work, Connolly suggests, if the city embraces the big idea at the heart of the national education reform movement these days: decentralization.
Connolly and other reform-minded figures — including a few of his rivals in the mayor’s race — want to break apart the central office on Court Street and push resources down to the school level.
The key figure in this new scheme: an empowered principal who, reformers believe, is better positioned to make decisions about her school than anyone.
“There’s a growing recognition across the country that schools differ greatly, even within the same district, in terms of their immediate local context,” says Margaret Raymond, director of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “And they need flexibility in order to allocate resources and adapt models to meet more fully the needs of the students that they serve.”
School districts in New York, Philadelphia and Providence, R.I. have taken some initial steps toward decentralization. And New Orleans, which overhauled its school system in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, has pushed furthest in this direction. Raymond says the early results there are promising.
Of course, creating more autonomous schools is no easy task. Teachers unions have real concerns about principals hiring and firing or extending the school day at will.
And in Massachusetts, only the worst performing schools — known as Level 4 schools — get those sort of powers through what is known as the “turnaround” process.
Bills before the state Legislature call for expansion to the next tier of schools, known as Level 3. But Connolly wants every school in the district to have turnaround powers. And absent a change in law, the councilor says, he sees other routes to flexibility.
The school district could move to create more “innovation” schools — a sort of “turnaround” lite. And there is room under existing law, he says, for more of a certain brand of charter school known as “in-district.”
Peter Cookson Jr., managing director at the Washington-based think tank Education Sector, offers a word of caution about decentralization. It is a “good strategy,” he says, but one that “only works if the people in the school building are really A+ people.”
Connolly, for his part, says he recognizes the importance of school leadership. He has made a more robust principal development program a centerpiece of his school reform agenda.
Cookson says it’s a sound idea. Still, he warns, “I would go slowly on [decentralization] if I were him.”
Connolly’s education reform push has hardly gone unnoticed.
Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union, has offered a tough critique of the councilor and what he calls the corporate takeover of public education.
And when Stand for Children, a sometimes-controversial education reform group, endorsed Connolly and suggested it would spend more than $500,000 promoting his candidacy, there was an uproar.
A day after The Boston Globe and WBUR reported on Stand’s endorsement, Connolly staged a press conference in the shadow of City Hall told the group not to spend on his behalf.
But the Stand controversy focused more on the question of outside spending in the mayor’s race than on the group’s agenda.
And as Connolly notes, the fight over education reform in the city is not nearly as rancorous as, say, the battle royale over the Chicago teachers contract that grabbed national headlines last year.
But if Connolly makes it to the corner office and pushes the sort of change he envisions, that could change.
The white, Irish guy from West Roxbury — if not exactly a symbol of a Boston transformed — is bent on a transformative leadership.
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