"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Saving Public Oversight of Public Schools in Massachusetts

A public outpouring of support for public education is needed next week in Massachusetts in order to beat back a corporate sponsored bill to impose more unneeded charters and to disempower elected school committees. Call your State Representatives on Monday, please:
GateHouse News Service
Posted Dec 30, 2009 @ 01:34 PM


House leaders are poised send legislation to the floor next week that narrows the scope of major education policy changes approved last month by the Senate, removing key provisions that would shield teachers from dismissal and boost the levels of reimbursement public school districts receive for students leaving to attend charter schools.

The bill, on a tight time schedule due to an application deadline for up to $250 million in federal education aid, keys on the state’s lowest performing schools, setting up state intervention guidelines that could affect 55 schools, senior House members said Tuesday. Limits on what percentage of school spending can go toward charters would double, from 9 percent to 18 percent, in the lowest 10 percent of districts on the performance scale.

The House budget committee plans to poll its members on the bill Tuesday, expecting passage, and intends an amendment deadline early next week, with votes later in the week and a conference committee with the Senate the following week. Gov. Deval Patrick’s education chief, Paul Reville, said Monday that Patrick needed the bill on his desk by Jan. 14 in order for the state to qualify for the federal assistance cut-off date of Jan. 19. Both House and Senate members say they are confident they can meet the Jan. 19 deadline for so-called Race to the Top funds. . . .

You may choose to use some of the talking points from the following op-ed:

Sometimes, reforms don't do everything you want, yet move in the right direction. This is not the case with the sweeping new law now racing through the Legislature. This law, if not fundamentally altered, will weaken Massachusetts' public schools and hurt children. What's the big rush?

Its proponents are selling the bill with false claims that changes to Massachusetts public education are necessary to secure federal "Race to the Top" funds. Not only is that mostly incorrect, but districts receiving those funds around the country will need to use the money in specific ways that will not solve their huge budget gaps.

This bill has passed the Senate and will come up in the House in early January. Thousands have called their representatives with concerns, but more are needed to counter the powerful forces backing the bill's passage.

The bill will grant superintendents unilateral power to change teacher contracts, bypassing both unions and local school committees. The bill concentrates enormous authority in the commissioner of education, trusting him to make positive changes. Yet overly concentrating power, removing checks and balances, is as dangerous for democracy as it has been for the U.S. economy.

By blaming teachers and principals for most educational problems, this bill ignores many causes of low academic achievement, particularly the consequences of poverty and unequal and inadequate school funding. It ignores the failure of many district leaders to implement effective teacher and principal evaluation and professional development that improve instruction. In short, it blames the less powerful while absolving the most powerful.

The bill will dramatically expand the number of charter schools in Massachusetts. Contrary to public relations spin, most charters do about the same as other schools, and some do worse. Charters largely avoid students who are more expensive to educate.

Regular New Bedford schools enroll nearly twice as many students with disabilities and twice as many whose first language is not English as does New Bedford's charter school. The legislation requires charters to file more reports, but it does nothing if the schools fail to enroll more of these students.

It also does nothing if charters keep pushing out kids who are harder to educate. Some charters graduate well under half their enrollees. If these were regular public schools, they would be labeled "dropout factories."

The bill's supporters claim it will improve the state testing program by looking at more than MCAS scores. In fact, it merely provides new ways to use MCAS scores. Though parents intrinsically recognize their children are more than test scores and need more than test prep, this law does not. It still fails to advance a system with varied forms of assessment, as promised by Massachusetts' Education Reform legislation from almost 20 years ago.

Now the state plans to use MCAS scores to rate teachers, which will intensify pressure to ignore untested subjects and teach to the test.

It's understandable when parents who have suffered from inadequate schools look hopefully at promised alternatives. But this scheme will undermine public control yet fail to improve education. The House must reject it.

What Massachusetts really needs is a plan to improve and equalize school resources, which can be done if wealthier communities pay their fair share, strengthen teaching and leadership, ensure parents can be engaged in their children's education, move away from one-size-fits-all testing, and not blindly expand charter schools.

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