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City Councilor John Connolly and state Rep. Marty Walsh, finalists in the Boston mayoral race, do not differ sharply on the basic questions of education policy.
Both want to expand early childhood education. Both say the state should lift the cap on charter schools.
But those similarities mask major differences in style and emphasis that portend quite different paths for the Boston schools.
Connolly has emerged as the local spokesman for a national education reform movement that favors a market-based approach — charter schools, teacher accountability and a devolution of power from centralized school district offices to individual principals.
"I want to see a thin bureaucracy up top," Connolly says, arguing that Boston needs "schools that work from the bottom up, not from a top-heavy bureaucracy that tries to have a cookie-cutter school system."
But if Connolly is eyeing a major restructuring, Walsh warns that his opponent's plan to "blow up" the school system is reckless. And the dislocation, he suggests, will impact children.
"You know, kids can't afford to throw the system out," he says, "because it's going to take years to rebuild the system."
Walsh has focused on more programmatic, less structural, change.
He says he'll put universal preschool in place within four years. And he promises an intensive effort to improve the city's high schools — developing school-within-a-school "academies" for ninth- and 10th-graders too often shuttled through the system and adding more trade programs tailored to the modern economy.
Both candidates say their policies are aimed at closing the achievement gap separating white students from blacks and Latinos.
And their fight mirrors, in some respects, a roiling, decades-long national debate over how best to address that gap.
The market-based reform movement has, for years now, had a strong hold on the education establishment. It infused President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind law and President Obama's Race to the Top legislation.
Its patrons include Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates, who has funded reform efforts across the country, and some of the country's highest profile mayors: New York's Michael Bloomberg and Chicago's Rahm Emanuel among them.
But the movement has spawned strong critics, too — none so forceful as New York University professor Diane Ravitch, who served in President George H.W. Bush's administration and initially embraced standards-based reform.
Ravitch, who endorsed City Councilor Rob Consalvo in the 12-way preliminary election for Boston mayor, says the movement is corporatizing education: injecting competition into an arena where it is wholly inappropriate.
Charter schools, she notes, tend not to serve the same numbers of English language learners and disabled students as traditional public schools.
And the bottom line, she says, is that the movement hasn't yet closed the achievement gap.
"The track record is that everything they advocate has failed," she says. "The track record is they're losers."
But leaders of the Boston wing of the reform movement are undeterred.
"Boston can become the preeminent city in the United States when it comes to efforts to close the achievement gap," Connolly says.
Connolly says Boston has a number of advantages: It's much smaller — much more manageable — than New York or Chicago; it's got a bevy of nonprofit and university partners; and while charter schools nationwide have a mixed record, they've shown promising results here.
The mayor of Boston, moreover, has considerable control over the schools, with the power to appoint the School Committee and shape the hiring of the superintendent.
Put it all together, Connolly says, and "the [new] mayor has the capacity to be incredibly bold."
Connolly says he will push for a nontraditional schools superintendent who will buy into the decentralization of the system.
The idea is that the school district's central office is too sclerotic, too titled toward the status quo and ill-equipped to tend to the specific needs of each school community.
Connolly suggests a principal, who knows the needs of her students, is better positioned to make staffing, scheduling and curriculum decisions.
But the new mayor and superintendent cannot simply grant principals the autonomy to hire and fire or extend the school day; there are restrictions in state law and the teachers contract.
Connolly would have to press the state for more charter schools, which have greater freedom than traditional schools, or push for a broader change in the law granting all Boston schools charter-like powers.
Short of that, he would have to get broad buy-in from teachers, who can under current law vote to turn their own schools into "innovation schools" with many of the freedoms attached to charter schools.
Connolly's rocky relationship with the Boston Teachers Union could complicate that task.
And even if he did achieve a dramatic decentralization, the move would come with some risk. It could fail if principals don't make effective use of their new powers. Indeed, several autonomous schools in Boston have fallen flat.
Still, education reform leaders like Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, say big, structural change is required.
"I think it's high-risk," Grogan says. "On the other hand, we can't stay where we are, either in Boston or in urban America generally. We have what still qualifies as an epic disaster on our hands — whole generations of mostly black and brown young people really...headed for a marginal adult existence."
The Boston Foundation does not endorse political candidates. But other education reform groups have flocked to Connolly.
The Massachusetts chapter of national outfit Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) had spent nearly $1 million on canvassing and television advertisements on Connolly's behalf as of Saturday, according to campaign finance reports.
Walsh's campaign has criticized the hedge fund money behind DFER. And he says the "corporate reform" movement wants to "bulldoze" the Boston school system.
Walsh, a longtime labor leader, is promising a more cooperative approach — pledging to work with the teachers union and eschewing Connolly's "line in the sand" tack.
Still, Walsh is hardly a pure traditionalist. He serves on the board of a Dorchester charter school and says the charter school movement has some lessons to teach traditional public schools.
And while he does not endorse the full shake-up envisioned by Connolly, he says more power and resources should shift to the school-site level.
Paul Reville, a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education and former secretary of education for Gov. Deval Patrick, suggests the focus on structural reform is overdone.
The real work of schools improvement, he says, is in the pedagogy of teachers; he's more interested in what the best charter schools are doing in the classroom than in the principal's office.
But some structural change, he says, is inevitable. The 19th- and 20th-century model of education — a standard-issue education handed down by a centralized bureaucracy — is already fading, he says, as educators come to recognize the importance of tailoring instruction to the needs of very different students.
"The idea that we evolve away from a one-size-fits-all model to a model that includes a number of different providers and a number of different services seems to me to be a natural evolution," he says.
This program aired on November 4, 2013.
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