Mayoral Candidates Are Passionate (But Not Too Realistic) About Schools

Revisiting the Boston Teachers Union mayoral debate.

Moderating a candidates forum—especially among 11 competitors—does not give one the best vantage from which to assess the performances. Nevertheless, I have a few observations from last night’s Boston Teachers Union debate I was asked to lead.

Mostly, I got the sense that the passion about education, and even some considerable knowledge and experience about it, was not translating into much realism about what the next mayor of Boston faces. Perhaps that’s just campaign posturing. Maybe it was fear of the room full of opinionated teachers. Or, in some cases at least, it might just be a lack of depth in their thinking.

My hope, as I prepared for the forum, was not so much to get the candidates to list positions on a wide range of topics, but to draw them out, perhaps a little off their talking points, to get some sense of whether they can speak intelligently and meaningfully about the city’s school systems.

I started by asking a raise-your-hands question: Do you agree with the statement: “On balance, charter schools have had a positive effect on the education of Boston’s children.”

All of them raised their hand. (Charles Yancey was not there yet; Dan Conley did not attend.)

So from there, I took it as a given that charter schools are, will be, and should be a piece of the Boston educational puzzle. For the first round of questions, I tried to prod them on how to ensure and increase the beneficial effect as charters expand; whether in-district charters are preferable to Commonwealth Charter schools (and if not, why have them?); how to improve the adoption of best practices from charters to public schools (and vice versa); and how the city should push charter schools to accept more ELL and special needs learners (if indeed it should).

Again, I was busier than others in the room, so I’d like to hear from them; but I didn’t feel like I got very much from the candidates on any of that. They were happy to expound, often fervently, on what they like or don’t like about charter schools, or to insist on the greatness of public schools, or to complain about talking about charter schools. But very few of them wanted to actually talk about how to oversee a mixed educational system.

Likewise, as we moved on to other topics, every candidate (save David James Wyatt) raised their hand to agree with the statement: “There is too much emphasis on standardized testing in Boston’s schools.” What followed was much of the usual complaints about teaching to the test, lack of arts and other holistic learning and development, and so on. Not much on what to do about it, or where to get the funding for these arts and music programs. Lots of agreement on the need for more teacher and principal training and support, improving school facilities, providing more classroom supplies, integrating wrap-around services, and so on and so on; not much, to my ears, on how they could do what Tom Menino could not.

In fact, very few of them seemed to want to talk much at all about how to pay for all the laundry lists of things they say they want to do to improve schools.

Which is why the last question of the night, while very brief, might have been the most important. I asked: If, as mayor, you did have a piece of revenue that could go toward one agenda item we’ve talked about tonight, which would it be?

Their answers (cribbed from the Twitter feed of WGBH reporter Anne Mosteu): Arroyo, Clemons, and Yancey, books and supplies; Barros, extending day, opportunity gaps; Connolly and Consalvo, social/emotional/mental health services; Richie, bulkhead, housing; Ross, tech/voc school; Walczak, early childhood education; Walsh, teachers; Wyatt, building repairs.