School turnaround bill advances

New approach requires community input

Yawu Miller | 2/28/2018, 10:32 a.m.
Days after the Question 2 ballot initiative backing charter school expansion went down by a decisive 62-38 margin in 2016, ...
Teachers at the City on a Hill Charter School in Roxbury are seeking to form a union. Banner photo

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.