Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Menino links proposed school system changes to potential economic growth

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino this morning delivered one of the best speeches of his political career, and it brought the crowd of several hundred at the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce breakfast to their feet in an enthusiastic ovation. In it, he laid out a compelling vision for a comprehensive overhaul of the Boston Public Schools. In the process, he said things that have needed to be said for a long time.

He strongly backed Superintendent Carol Johnson’s plan to close a $60 million budget gap and simultaneously improve the quality of education. There are 5600 empty seats in the city. The Boston School Committee tomorrow night will vote on Johnson’s proposal to close nine schools and merge eight into four, saving an estimated $20 million a year. But this isn’t just about bricks and mortar.

Menino’s and Johnson’s vision is that every classroom will have a highly skilled teacher whose salary, in part, will be tied to performance. He wants a teacher contract that will allow principals across the city hire the teachers whose skills best meet the needs of their students. He also wants to reform the teacher evaluation system. Noting that Boston has the shortest school day in the Commonwealth, he wants to extend the school day. Outdated contract rules will have to change.

And that’s not all that will outrage the unions. The school system’s health insurance has doubled in the last decade, meaning that one in eight dollars goes for employee health insurance. Millions could be saved by joining the Group Insurance Commission plan that covers state workers. Resistance to this reasonable change among municipal workers is virtually statewide. Menino will ask the legislature to approve a home rule petition that will enable Boston to make the change.

Boston’s 61 percent graduation rate is “one of the highest in urban America,” but, he said, we “can’t accept that more than a third don’t graduate.” He understands that quality education is the foundation of economic growth and prosperity, not to mention competitiveness.

I asked the Mayor how, in light of the need to enable principals to choose their own teachers, he is actually going to get agreement on modifying the bumping rule, where those teachers in closing schools could actually displace other, sometimes better teachers elsewhere solely because of seniority. He acknowledged the challenges presented in upcoming union talksAsked where the preliminary talks are, the Mayor said they’re still “in the on-deck circle.”

More than one observer mused that the strength of this speech and the force of its message could well signal that Tom Menino may not be planning to run for yet another term. He didn’t mince words, and he indicated a willingness to go head-to-head with the teachers union on issues where it has been largely intransigent. But, as he well noted, education is “the issue of our time,” and, even if he doesn’t get 100 percent of what he wants, he has definitely raised the bar on what is needed well into the future.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.


  1. So Mister Mayah is willing to go head-to-head with the teacher's union? Where did he find this backbone? He certainly never showed it when negotiating with the firefighter's union. To call him spineless would be an insult to invertebrates.

  2. Menino took over the school system EIGHTEEN years ago. He has total control of the Boston schools.
    After eighteen years, the problems of the Boston school system should be his responsibility. Why did it take eighteen years for him to notice how short the school day is?
    More to the point, why are you cutting him eighteen years of slack?
    Bob Gardner
    Randolph, MA

  3. To Mark, I don't think he was spineless against the firefighters. He held out for more favorable contract terms for years and, while the final terms were far more generous than others were receiving (too generous, I'd add), he was regularly assaulted by the union with protests every time he went out in public.
    To anonymous, I agree that progress on the schools has been slow, but improvements have been made, albeit incrementally. His comprehensive approach this time is decidedly an improvement over what has been attempted during his multiple terms.

  4. Meanwhile, in the last 18 years Shanghai has gone from a third world city to
    having the best student achievement in THE WORLD. With 25 million people.

    How is Menino's 18 years of being in charge of the schools anything other than absolute failure?

    We have a manageable school district of 50,000 students with unequaled resources and access to higher education and BPS achievement is a joke.

    Yet, the elite classes who never would bother sending their kids to public schools keep rubber stamping the Mayor and his work.

    Way to go USA!

  5. To Anonymous, How often are you in the Boston schools to see what is actually happening in the classrooms? I get in just once a year, in connection with the Boston Plan for Excellence but I am often impressed by what I see. Hence, I think it unfair to label the last 18 years as "an absolute failure." Please let me know what you have observed.

  6. Okay, so you're saying that Boston schools are such a mess that we have to attack the teachers' unions, but actually pretty "impressive" so anything but cheerleading for the guy who runs them is kind of unfair.
    I'm concerned about the Orwellian language used to push this proposal. Isn't "empty seats" another way of saying "smaller class size"? Isn't smaller class size a good thing?
    Bob Gardner
    Randolph, Mass