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School turnaround bill advances

New approach requires community input

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO
School turnaround bill advances
Teachers at the City on a Hill Charter School in Roxbury are seeking to form a union.

Days after the Question 2 ballot initiative backing charter school expansion went down by a decisive 62-38 margin in 2016, charter proponents including Gov. Charlie Baker cited the Springfield Empowerment Zone as the next new education reform.

Earlier this month, the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education reported out legislation that could replicate the Empowerment Zone model across the state. An Act to Promote Autonomy and Success in Schools would give the state’s commissioner of education the power to designate two or more Level IV schools an “Innovation Partnership Zone,” wherein an appointed board would have power over curriculum, school budgets, procurement and hiring, school hours and calendars, and the power to waive contracts and collective bargaining agreements with unions.

“The intent of this legislation is to give one more option to districts and schools that are experiencing a lack of improvement,” said House Education Committee Chairwoman Alice Peisch. Unlike a state takeover of a Level V school, the community remains involved in the operation of the school, Peisch added.

Under the legislation, the commissioner is required to establish a local stakeholder group to devise a turnaround plan, including the school superintendent, the chairperson of the school committee, the president of the teachers union, a school administrator, a teacher, a staff member and a member of a school parent council.

But the commissioner also may dispense with any of the requirements spelled out in the legislation for any particular school:

“The commissioner may grant an exemption from any and all requirements of this section to an underperforming or chronically underperforming school that is a member of an Innovation Partnership Zone established pursuant to section 92A of chapter 71,” the legislation reads.

Third way

The Innovation Partnership Zones fit into a strategy dubbed “the third way” by education reform proponents, a term that reflects a midway between traditional district schools and charter schools, which receive public funding but are independent from school districts, teachers unions, school committees and other forms of local governance.

The approach differs somewhat from turnaround plans from past years, many of which focused on channeling extra funding to schools with struggling student populations, while retaining district control.

The Innovation Zone legislation has raised concerns among teachers’ unions and education activists who fear the provisions would pave the way for privatization of public schools.

“Ultimately, what this bill is promoting is the takeover of our public schools,” said Charlotte Kelly, executive director of the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance, a statewide organization supported by unions and education advocacy groups.

Kelly, who calls the bill “takeover zone legislation,” points to the state’s takeover of the Level V Dever School in Dorchester, in which they brought in outside contractors but made no progress in turning around student test scores. She says the state should focus on adequately funding schools, rather than taking them out of district control.

“The schools that end up in Level IV are typically chronically underfunded,” she said.

Peisch said the commissioner already has the power to declare a Level IV school chronically underperforming under the current law and place it in state receivership.

While the legislation is modeled after the Springfield Empowerment Zone, as yet it’s unclear how effective the strategy has been for the nine middle schools that were placed in that district in 2015. By one metric — Student Growth Percentage, which measures improvements on standardized tests — eight of the nine schools in the district have made some progress that local officials have called encouraging, yet none has met the district’s goals for improvement in math. There’s not yet been a consensus that the strategy has been a success in Springfield.

“It’s still relatively early,” Peisch acknowledged.

Setbacks for charters

While supporters of the 2016 charter school expansion ballot initiative have made it clear that they will continue to push for corporate-backed education reforms in Massachusetts, charter proponents have continued to suffer blowback from the ballot question battle. Last year, the state’s Office of Campaign and Public Finance fined Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy $426,466 — the largest such fine in Massachusetts history — for illegally shielding the names of the wealthy donors who ponied up $24 million for the campaign.

The bad news for charter supporters didn’t stop there.

In January, the New York-based Families for Excellent Schools fired it executive director, Jeremiah Kittredge, after an investigation into inappropriate behavior toward a non-employee. Then, in February, the group shut its doors for good, a move some attributed to fallout from the group’s unsuccessful push for charter expansion in Massachusetts.

Also last month, teachers at two of the charter schools run by Boston-based City on a Hill announced plans to form a union — an unusual move at charter schools, which typically have low teacher salaries and high turnover. If successful, the City on a Hill faculty would not be the first to form a union this year in Massachusetts. On Feb. 8, faculty and staff at the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter School in South Hadley got the green light to form a union from the state’s Department of Labor.

Even more unusual, the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Boston announced its request to become an in-district charter, a move that would have made the school subject to union membership, but would preserve its autonomy and potentially provided access to state funding for construction of a new school building. Conservatory Lab is currently working to raise funds for a $24 million building.

But BPS officials expressed an unwillingness to move forward with the proposal.

“Our analysis shows that moving ahead with the proposal on the timeline the charter school has requested could cause BPS to incur a significant financial burden, and it’s important that the district focus on using its resources to support existing BPS schools,” a spokesman for the district said in a statement to the Boston Globe.

In Lynn

In another setback for charter schools, Department of Education acting Commissioner Jeff Wulfson turned down Equity Lab Charter School’s application for a new grade 5-12 school in Lynn and denied a request from a KIPP chain school to expand its seats there.

The number of charter school seats in Massachusetts communities is capped by state law, but in communities that fall in the lowest 10 percent in student performance, as measured by test scores, charters are allowed to expand beyond the cap. While Lynn is in the bottom 10 percent this year, the city will move out of that category next year due to rising scores on the state’s MCAS standardized test. While Wulfson cited the increasing MCAS scores in denying both the Equity Lab and KIPP requests, he also cited KIPP’s increased rates of student discipline in its Lynn and Boston schools.

In more disappointing news, KIPP co-founder Michael Feinberg was fired last week after allegations surfaced that he sexually abused a student in 1999 and sexually harassed two KIPP employees. On Monday, Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter School fired head of school George Simpson in response to his Jan. 26 arrest for possession of heroin and methamphetamine and several other reasons officials on the school’s board did not make public.