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A tale of two cities’ schools

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THE ELECTED SCHOOL BOARD, beholden to political donors, meets regularly for hours on end, patting itself on the back and micromanaging rather than working to improve the schools it governs. A divisive campaign, backed by the business community, pushes for the mayor to take over the district. Critics say that mayoral control would deprive them of their vote.

It’s Los Angeles, 2006. It’s also Boston, 1991.

As the state Senate prepares this week to consider a bill that would transform the Los Angeles Unified School District, it may want to look for guidance not to the city 400 miles to the south but to a city 3,000 miles away. Boston adopted true mayoral control, and its experience shows why Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s proposal is not up to par.

Nearly 15 years after the mayor and an appointed school board took charge of the Boston schools, the changes are obvious and sometimes remarkable. The schools now spend 50% more per student than they did 10 years ago, in large part because of Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s effective lobbying of state officials and intensive fundraising among the private sector. The district has smaller class sizes, better teacher training and full-day kindergarten for all students. The mayor also has directed money from city coffers toward a growing pre-kindergarten program that eventually will be open to all 4-year-olds.

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But greater spending and more programs are only worthwhile if they lead to better results -- and on this score, Boston’s experience is encouraging as well. Test scores are up and achievement gaps have narrowed -- even in middle and high schools, where L.A. has made little headway. Today, 62% of Boston’s 10th-grade African American students pass the state’s math test; seven years ago, only 15% did. Latino students showed even more improvement. This spring, black and Latino admissions to Boston’s most prestigious public school, Boston Latin School, which accepts students based on their grades and a demanding entrance exam, jumped by nearly a third.

Once they graduate, Boston high school students head toward more successful lives than their counterparts elsewhere. Three-fourths of the class of 2004 were enrolled in college or other postsecondary training a year after high school. Of course, it would be unfair to compare state scores or dropout rates or exit-exam results between Boston and L.A. The students take different tests (Boston’s are tougher) and the scores and dropout rates are figured differently. And there are inherent difficulties in L.A. that Boston doesn’t face. It’s not so much that the Boston school system is less than one-tenth the size of L.A.'s. (If size were what kept local schools from succeeding, then breaking up L.A. Unified would make sense.) But far more L.A. students aren’t fluent in English. And Boston doesn’t have to build scores of schools just to take students off year-round, multi-track schedules.

Still, the different cities can be compared, and not to L.A.'s advantage, on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests given to fourth- and eighth-graders. Here Boston outperforms Los Angeles, usually by double digits, in every ethnic group, in both grades and in math and reading. For example, 28% of L.A.'s black fourth-graders scored at basic or higher in reading, compared with 45% in Boston.

Boston’s success has been noticed. A joint study published this year by the Aspen Institute and Annenberg Institute for School Reform praised the Boston school leadership for, among other things, “laying out a compelling vision of a whole system of successful schools and implementing it in a sustained way.” Administrators, principals and teachers are all talking the same language, according to the study, and are all focused on teaching and learning. “Boston’s accomplishments in improving the culture and the climate of the district have been remarkable,” the report goes on to say. No one has said that about L.A.'s schools lately.

Pretty much anyone in Boston, from principals to parents, will tell you that mayoral control is no cure-all for the many ailments of urban schools. Even with inroads made on the achievement gap, white and Asian students in Boston score much better than their black and Latino counterparts. The dropout rate is a major concern -- even under the most optimistic estimates, more than 20% of Boston students leave school without graduating. Improvement has been uneven from school to school. Parents there often complain about lack of communication, just like their counterparts in L.A.

But pretty much anyone in Boston will also say that the schools have done much better under the mayor and his appointed board than they would have under the old, elected school board. That includes activists in the African American community who initially had strong reservations about the change. The president of the Boston teachers union openly praises mayoral governance.

There is no talk of returning to the old system. The voters of Boston spoke loudest on the subject a decade ago. After state legislation allowed the change, a local measure giving approval passed by a single percentage point. Another local referendum in 1996, mandated by the earlier legislation, gave the new governance era a strong thumbs-up: 70% in favor of keeping the mayor in charge.

But Boston’s experience is valuable for reasons that go beyond vote counts or test scores. It’s not so much what Boston has done as how it has done it. The city was one of the first to adopt mayoral control, and it shows what the governance change can achieve over the long haul. Of the cities that have put the mayor in charge of schools, Boston also has had the most coherent and consistent approach.

Supt. Tom Payzant, who retired at the end of June, spent 11 years running the Boston district, an extraordinarily long tenure for a big-city schools chief. And Menino has been dogged in his pursuit of better results.

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Next: How the mayor makes a difference.


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