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Boston Pact: breaking the stalemate in public schools

October 14, 1982

It's a recipe for a standoff: schools complaining that their graduates can't find jobs; businesses responding that graduates can't read, write, or compute; and the students themselves viewing school as irrelevant.

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So serious is the problem, especially in the inner cities, that it has nearly paralyzed many of America's once-proud school systems.

The Boston public schools, among the most troubled in the nation, may have found a way to break the stalemate recently. It is called the Boston Compact. In substance, it strikes a bargain between the schools and the business community - saying, in effect, that if the schools increase the quality of their products, local businesses will hire them. In potential, it stands to have national ramifications - proving that, in an age of decreasing government funding, public-private partnerships can offer solutions to community problems. It could be the best thing to have happened in Boston for years.

The reasons for its potential are twofold. The first is political. That was most evident at a crowded press conference late last month. Never mind, for a moment, the details of the agreement. Focus simply on the Who's Who of movers and shakers gathered in a rare gush of unity on the same dais:

* School superintendent Robert R. Spillane, who after a year in office has won respect for his educational standards and for his ability to tread the jigging tightrope of Boston politics, made the announcement. With his professionalism barely concealing his feeling of triumph, he described the Compact as ''a far-reaching effort to meld the resources of city government, business, colleges and universities, cultural institutions, and community agencies into a single strategy for helping our high schools.''

* John P. LaWare, chairman of the Shawmut Bank, supported him enthusiastically as chairman of the Coordinating Committee - that shadowy but potent group of corporate leaders known as ''the Vault,'' whose decisions chart the direction of the business community's civic activity. The Vault ''very strongly endorsed'' the 106-page plan, Mr. LaWare said.

* Another Vault member, William S. Edgerly of the State Street Bank & Trust Company, spoke up as chairman of the Private Industry Council. The PIC, and particularly James J. Darr, played a central role in writing the Compact, which Mr. Edgerly praised as ''a pulling together of efforts to achieve meaningful goals.''

* Kevin H. White, the city's mercurial four-term mayor, spoke glowingly of the Compact as ''an incredibly innovative program'' that would help sustain Boston's booming growth by ensuring a constant supply of educated workers. Mayor White, whose rocky relations with school superintendents in the past have led to loggerheads over school budgets, has been widely charged with ignoring the schools. But the day after the press conference the mayor delivered his first major speech on the schools in years. While he offered no new funds, he did promise to help restore confidence in public education.

* John R. Silber, representing college and university presidents whose institutions have individual ''pairings'' with schools, declared himself ''deeply impressed and pleased'' with the document. Dr. Silber, the controversial and outspoken president of Boston University, recently offered to take over the Boston schools and run them more efficiently than the school department could. BU's contribution to the Compact has come through Robert Sperber, the former superintendent of schools in Brookline who, with Dr. Silber's backing, helped line up college and university support.

* Finally, saying little but signifying much, were three members (a majority) of the school committee: Rita Walsh-Tomasini, Kevin A. McCluskey, and chairman Jean Sullivan McKeigue. The school committee is unwinding itself from a past which includes resistance to court-ordered desegregation, prison sentences for members involved in bribery schemes, and a greater interest in patronage jobs than in education. The present committee is perceived to be one of the most able in years - although its has had its knockabouts with Dr. Spillane on racial matters.

Those issues, in fact, may have caused the only cloud overshadowing the glow of unity: the absence of the school committee's two black members. Both were officially excused because they hold full-time jobs. In fact, they have reservations about the Compact, questioning whether it will address the problems of minority children (who are now in the majority in the schools).