Education may emerge as the central issue in the Boston mayor’s race, and not simply because the school system is one of a handful of big-city districts across the country under mayoral control. Two decades after the Education Reform Act of 1993 set the ambitious, but so far elusive, goal of raising all students to academic proficiency, there is growing momentum behind a fundamental rethinking of urban education that some believe could provide the foundation to actually reach that goal.
That rethinking is being driven by an idea that has animated much of the education reform movement — that schools operate best when they are given the autonomy to assemble a teaching staff committed to a common vision and the freedom to structure a curriculum and school day that supports it. That autonomy, together with accountability for delivering results, is the main underpinning of independently run charter schools. A recent study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that Boston had the highest-performing charter school sector of any city in the country. But giving schools more autonomy has also been at the heart of district reforms, including “innovation schools” recently authorized by the Legislature and turnaround efforts targeting the most troubled schools.
A coalition of more than 90 education and nonprofit leaders wants to put this vision of school-level autonomy at the center of the mayor’s race. The new “Boston:Forward” coalition is calling for removal of the state cap on charter schools and for the embrace of a strategy to make school-level autonomy the governing principle, rather than a carve-out exception, at Boston’s 128 district schools.