Thursday, August 20, 2009

My position on the Public Schools

Mayoral Candidate Kevin McCrea’s vision for our school children:

I have carefully considered the recent “innovative” proposals of my fellow mayoral candidates for improving our public schools by expanding charters. I believe we can’t really make our schools better for 55,000 students by a strategy that at best, will help a lucky few -- at the expense of the rest. We need the leadership, the commitment and the work ethic to say that we are going to make the schools serving all of our children good schools.

I realize that parents face a system where many schools are considered “under-performing,” and where a random lottery will put their children on long bus rides to unfamiliar neighborhoods and schools. These politically motivated charter proposals are simply about giving a small number of resourceful and vocal parents a way out of the system, serving as a safety valve for the rising pressure to improve it.

However, charters aren’t the answer to our problems. Broad studies show that they are no better on the whole than the public schools they intend to displace, that their students are self-selected for motivation, that they handle fewer disabled and English Learning students, and that they achieve high scores by sending the less successful students back to the public schools. In fact, only a small percent of the charters in the nation are the high-flying excellent schools that advocates invoke to boost the charter movement.

There are many fine public schools, but serious inequities continue because our “lottery” is not genuine, and politically connected people get their children the schools they want. Does it surprise anyone that Mayor Menino, Councilor Flaherty and Councilor Yoon were all just “lucky” and their progeny ended up in their first choice of schools? If public schools, taught by union teachers with standard curricula, are good enough for their offspring, why are charters their solution for other people? Why don’t we just replicate the successful public schools in all of the neighborhoods?

It takes ample work to negotiate tough but fair contracts with the unions, to insure that we have good teachers and facilities, and to motivate parents, teachers and students to achieve to their potential. It makes a much better sound-bite to have a “magic bullet” answer.

Let’s remember that the original justification for public subsidies to charters was that they would come up with models that we could then transfer to the public schools. I think they’ve “discovered” what most parents inherently know about what works when they are bringing up their own children: spending time with kids, instilling high expectations, rewarding academic achievement and good behavior, proper discipline, and using proven teaching methods. We don’t need to dismantle our schools just to instill these values.

I don’t want our children to be the guinea pigs for endless experimentation with their education, when we know what the problem is. For the most part, it’s poverty. So acknowledges Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America, another experiment Boston will begin next year with 20 elite-college graduates, coming to rescue the inner city kids. Yes, education can remedy poverty, but first education must be made possible despite poverty.

The City schools serve many children hobbled by poverty, racial discrimination, language problems, homelessness or unstable residences, single-parent families, undernourishment and often a backlog of medical and psychological needs. Our schools cannot skip over what they lack and start in teaching them to score well on tests and prepare for college. In fact, college admission is not necessarily the right ladder to success for everyone. We should value all of our children and prepare them to succeed in whatever path they choose.

My thoughts on education have been consistent since I ran for City Council in 2005. As Mayor, I will not sacrifice the majority of our children for the sake of looking innovative or modern or progressive. My position is simple: education is our number one priority, and funding will not be cut while we make sure that ALL our children get a good education.

I have carefully examined the City finances and made the promise back in January that as Mayor I would not cut one cent from the school budget. I gave the financial information to the school committee and testified at numerous hearings that we have the money to fund our schools. Meanwhile Menino was playing politics with our children, scaring our students and parents with threatened layoffs and program cuts. This is no way to run a government, nor a way to treat our citizens, and this dishonesty will stop immediately with my administration.

As Mayor, I will charge my school superintendent to join me in sitting down with the teachers’ union, parents’ groups and other parties with appropriate training and experience in education. I will ask them to devise a program that will provide this educational enrichment environment, and figure out what it will take to implement it.

From my own experience, believe that these principles should guide the program:

1. Early intervention. I support Pre-K classes and intensive attention in the lower grades; high school is far too late to start teaching critical thinking, creativity, etc.
2. Comprehensive learning. School is not just about test scores; education has to treat the whole child, and produce a well-rounded individual who can realize his/her talents, become financially self-reliant, and participate in community life as a responsible citizen.
3. Integrated support: We have to employ advisors, or connectors, who will link children and their families with all the support services they need to succeed, from social services to health care, and monitor their case-load of students every day. This includes drop-outs, gang members, and ex-prison inmates, who need educational and job-seeking help.
4. Universal application: Include all the children, build a culture of success, and it will be self-reinforcing. Every child should get the best we can give. No child should suffer from stereotyping.
5. Community-building: Schools should be at the heart of the community, within walking distance if possible, providing social, athletic, artistic and educational services to all ages.

Here are what I envision as indicators of success:
1. Near-zero drop-out and expulsion rates
2. Good report cards reflecting tests and comments from teachers and advisors.
3. Interaction and feedback from parents.
4. Faculty satisfaction and stability. I will work with our teachers to help them shine. The advisors will help relieve them of the social-service burdens we’ve been placing on them. As to union rules, I will work with them to negotiate hours, quality control, and other controversial issues. Blaming the teachers for badly negotiated contracts is an acknowledgment of bad management by the administration.
5. Student and parent satisfaction.
6. Reduction in violence.
7. Student and family use of our libraries and other services besides classroom learning.

My administration will approach the school system comprehensively. City-wide system planning will be done to assess the school needs of every neighborhood. We will build schools as necessary and eliminate busing as we create good schools all over our city.

Responsiveness and public accountability for our public education is essential. A number of school committee members will be elected, so that independent voices and opinions can be heard and can answer directly to their constituents. The mayor will appoint the majority and I believe the city council should appoint at least one member, so that we have better checks and balances.

Finally, I will keep all this in the public realm; there will be no public-private partnerships, no non-profits set up to take the place of the support the schools should receive, and no expectation that teachers will buy supplies with their own money. Public education is a public responsibility; there is no more important job for the city government, and we will fund our schools adequately. This won’t be difficult if we cut out the waste and collect what we are due from corporations and institutions – something all our current officials already know and refuse to do. I will assure equal treatment to all students and complete transparency and accountability.

A good school system, like a good house, does not get built by cutting corners. It takes time, dedication, and a commitment to doing it right. I believe that for our school system that means longer school days and school year, high expectations, a well-rounded curriculum, ensuring we have good professional teachers, proper facilities, and appropriate discipline. I’ll combine that with professional management, citizen involvement and recognition for the excellent work that does take place in our schools. I have promised to visit every school every two years to meet with the parents, teachers and students to find out how things are working. I made the same promise when I ran for City Council four years ago. If my opponents had shown as much interest in the schools we wouldn’t just now be “discovering” the deplorable conditions for the BPS, such as the underfunded athletic programs recently highlighted in the Boston Globe.

I want to take the money we will save from eliminating busing and cutting unneeded overhead and staff and put it back into the schools. I want to build a leading green science and technology school similar to the Bronx High School of Science. I want to make sure each of our neighborhood schools becomes a local community center with public computers and wireless access, to help bridge the digital divide and to give kids a safe place to go. I want to put a mandatory financial literacy class in all of our high schools. I want to offer our teachers low-interest home loans to keep them here. We have the money; we are in the top 10 percent in the state in terms of spending per student, but we just need to spend it wisely and transparently.

Decades of failure and violence in our schools have failed generations of children. My opponents are content to float the latest buzzwords for educational reform – choice, charters, institutional public-private partnerships -- as a show of “doing something” about the problem. I know and they know that won’t work for the vast majority of children. It will just create the illusion that politicians are addressing the problem. But this is a solvable problem, and we know from hard experience that the stakes are far too high to continue to fail. The children of Boston have suffered too long under failed political leadership on this issue and that must end immediately. If the people of Boston want a mayor who will promise magic bullets just to get elected, at the expense of our children, then that is their choice. I will have no part of that. I'm running for Mayor of Boston to represent all the people, and to me the people that are still too young to vote are my most important constituents. I am asking the voters – and all of us, school-parents or not -- to build a good universal educational system, and to stand with me in making this commitment.

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