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State and city plans for Boston school reform offer competing visions

The Nubian Square headquarters of Boston Public Schools. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The Nubian Square headquarters of Boston Public Schools. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

With takeover threats in the air, state officials have made clear that they expect brisk and broad improvement in the Boston Public Schools in problem areas identified in a recent report, including fuller inclusion of students with disabilities, more punctual school buses and safer, cleaner school buildings.

But in the two competing draft plans for achieving reforms, the state itself is cast in very different roles. Commissioner Jeff Riley’s initial May 20 draft imagines his agency — the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education — primarily as overseer and enforcer, while Boston Mayor Michelle Wu asks for DESE's "partnership" and "support" in her counter-proposal from May 25.

Riley’s draft version — obtained by WBUR on Thursday after a public records request — contains over a dozen deadlines and action items in eight key areas, including student safety, data transparency and support for English learners.

Both plans share that framework, though many of Riley's proposed deadlines would come quicker than Wu's. For instance, Riley proposes a Nov. 1 deadline for BPS to formulate and implement a district-wide inclusion policy for special education students, while Wu's plan offers to complete that work by Feb. 1, 2023.

Riley would also give DESE a host of oversight powers, from directing multiple audits to approval and inspection of planned repairs to the bathroom facilities at 15 Boston schools. DESE would also hold a seat on a working group aimed at improving the city’s McKinley schools, which are focused on special education but have coped with ailing facilities and low test scores.

Riley's five-page draft ends pointedly, asking the mayor — in the space above her requested signature — to “agree that in addressing [these] concerns… she will always put the interest of BPS students first, ahead of adults.”

Riley’s plan stops well short of proposing a whole-district state takeover in Boston — a prospect that many feared. During an interview with WBUR's Morning Edition earlier this week, Wu said the discussion about state receivership has been "distracting, because it simply isn't a possibility."

At a meeting of the Massachusetts board of education last week, a few lone voices did push openly for takeover or intervention on a similarly grand scale, including board member Matt Hills and Mary Tamer, head of Democrats for Education Reform.

But Riley declined to make any concrete recommendation, adding that he expected “a week or so… of intensive negotiations” with Wu and the district.

Eight days since that meeting, Mayor Wu said her office is weighing Riley’s response to her proposal but that they “have more work to do to reach an agreement.”

Wu’s counterproposal imagines DESE in a very different role when it comes to reforming Boston's schools. It asks that all parties "work together in a targeted, strengthened partnership" to increase equity and quality.

Each key area in Wu’s plan also requests “commitments” from DESE, including staff trainings and technical assistance with enacting special education reform and enhancing the state's system for reporting violent incidents in schools. And it seeks a $10 million investment from DESE toward implementing the district’s “strategic plan."

A DESE spokesperson declined to comment on the ongoing negotiations. But the competing draft plans give insight into the opening positions in those talks, which could have large ramifications for the district.

It’s worth noting that the predecessor agreement between DESE and BPS signed in March 2020 was closer to Wu's vision, with Riley agreeing to provide dedicated state support staff and $4 million in annual aid.

Riley has signaled that he isn’t satisfied with BPS’s progress since that time, nearly all of it overshadowed by the pandemic, as he called on Wu to "step up" to the challenge of implementing quick and considerable change in the district.

Related:

Max Larkin Twitter Reporter, Edify
Max Larkin is a multimedia reporter for Edify, WBUR's education vertical.

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