Sometimes a few essential truths emerge amid the minutiae that the Boston School Committee discusses during its hours-long sessions.
At Wednesday’s public meeting — the first in-person one since the pandemic began more than three years ago — the committee, among other items, completed Boston Public Schools Superintendent Mary Skipper’s first annual performance evaluation, grading her as “proficient” and giving her a salary increase. Before the vote, Committee Chairwoman Jeri Robinson offered what seemed to be an unscripted reflection on the sorry state of affairs in the district.
“These issues have been going on for 50, 70 years and we’ve had several superintendents in the last decade. And the problems persist,” Robinson said at the beginning of her nearly 5-minute address, in which she called BPS “a failing school system” despite being in “probably one of the richest cities” in terms of educational resources. “We spend a billion-plus dollars and our children are in schools that should have been condemned years ago. But the issue is, we’re trying to do something now,” said Robinson, who has served on the School Committee for nearly nine years.
Robinson’s comments pose a central question that harkens back to the long and painful history of governance of BPS, which has been on my mind since I watched “The Busing Battleground,” a two-hour documentary that premiered earlier this month on PBS’s “American Experience.” It is a tour de force that deftly unpacks the bitter years-long battle for educational equity that resulted in a court-ordered school desegregation through busing nearly 50 years ago. Robinson’s words, seen through that historical lens, confirm the old adage, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Robinson came across as heartfelt and resolute in her remarks, and she issued a strong call to action to stakeholders in the city about the future of the schools. “People want to blame or put that burden on the superintendent,” Robinson said. “It’s on … every single person who is any part of this city.” It’s been 50 years of busing, she said. “What did we learn? What haven’t we changed and why?”
The first layer to unpack is the irony in Robinson’s comments. “Someone should remind her that it is in her power to reset the agenda, to reset the vision, and reset the mission so that everyone is marching toward changing this so that there isn’t another 50 years of this,” Jill Shah, president of the Shah Family Foundation, said in the latest episode of the Last Night @ School Committee podcast, which she cohosts. The School Committee certainly bears some of the responsibility for the failures at BPS, where one-third of students are enrolled in schools that rank among the state’s lowest-performing ones. Last year, more than 40 percent of students in the district — or roughly 19,000 students — were chronically absent. Recall that a year ago the district was in danger of a state takeover, which was barely avoided. Instead, the city and BPS signed a last-minute agreement committing to various reforms — from renovating student bathrooms in 15 schools to running buses on time. Some of those reforms remain unfulfilled.
Second, Robinson was partially correct in highlighting the lack of public urgency among city stakeholders, especially elected officials. Robinson also said that it sometimes feels like people are “more interested in our failure.” Kerry Donahue, chief strategy officer at Boston Schools Fund, agreed in part. “Even trying to move this system in a positive direction just gets pushback,” Donahue said in an interview. “I think that’s probably an accurate experience” of being a district official. Pushback is also a natural outcome of being an appointed or elected city official; it’s called accountability.
For Vernée Wilkinson, director of the family advisory board at School Facts Boston, a parent advocacy nonprofit, the issue is not the pushback or stakeholder engagement. “Black and Latino families are demanding [change] every day. I don’t necessarily feel that they’re being listened to every day,” Wilkinson said. “There’s a disconnect between their discontent and the action plans, and the people that are either elected or hired to see those plans through.”
Ultimately, we can write a thousand more words assigning blame (and I have!); or talk about the legacy of busing, and how and why it failed (which my former colleague Farah Stockman wrote about and won a Pulitzer Prize for). “We can debate how a scarce number of school seats are allocated” or whether the city should go back to having an elected School Committee, Donahue said. At the end of the day, it comes down to a lack of access to good schools across the city. It’s a supply issue, Donahue said, and she is right. What is the city waiting for then? Another order from the court? Boston schools remain woefully unequal and Robinson’s fundamental sentiment was correct: Where is the urgency?