Friday, April 4, 2014

More on the zombie education bill

I took some more time on the zombie education bill  (H.3984) filed last week by Rep. Peisch, and I have a few more thoughts (in addition to my first post on this here):

I ran through this so fast last time that I didn't take the time to point out: guess who gets to pick the Level 3 "challenge" schools that need turnaround plans? The Commissioner!

Now, there may be those in the Commonwealth under the impression that Commissioner Chester needs even more power over local schools, but I have yet to meet them. Meaning no disrespect at all to the Commissioner, the removal of authority from local districts has not had great results, and I think that the Board of Education has been coming to that realization; the Commissioner was closely questioned at their last meeting as to what differences there were between the Level 4 plans, that had apparently failed, and the Level 5 plans for the same schools that were being proposed. Having the state determine that yet another group of schools needs yet more state intervention is not a good recipe for success.

And here is the bit that I think few people realize: while we like to think that the declarations of underperforming and such are all very scientific and mathematical...they aren't. And I was going to go into this here, but frankly, it needs its own post, which will be coming up next.

The big thing on the Level 4 schools, though, which I am sure no one wants to talk about, was the funding. The reason we don't have more Level 4 schools is funding: extended day (which was required), additional training, more staffing, and the other things that we were required in one way or another to do don't come free, and the state has a tough time requiring them if they don't add funding. It seems as though "challenge" schools, these...shall we call them "Level 3.5" schools?...will need to do these additional things, go through the upheaval and such, and without any funding.

So while this keeps the 4% cap on schools getting state intervention ("challenge, underperforming, or chronically underperfoming," or the new Level 3, plus Level 4 and 5), you're looking at some big push without funding to support it.

And, they will no doubt be in districts that are getting hit by the expansion of the charter cap, as well, so they will have greater concentration of high need students with even less funding.

In digging through the language (and particularly the replacement language), I also found the following:

  • This bill is preparing the groundwork for PARCC: in several places, the language "or any successor statewide assessment system approved by the board under section 1I of this chapter” is added after "MCAS."
  • The turnarounds of these Level 3.5 "challenge" schools can require all teachers to reapply for their positions.
  • The turnaround of these schools allows for funding by private foundations, including to increase salaries at that school.
  • The budget of "chronically underperforming" schools are to be available to the school's receiver (if appointed) without further vote of the School Committee. Good-bye quarterly reports! Further, such a school may accept and expend grants received without public acceptance of the School Committee or approval of the superintendent. Good-bye public transparency! (that's section 16, if you're keeping track)
  • Additionally, in Level 5 districts, the Commissioner can have the Secretary of Administration and Finance appoint a "chief procurement officer," which would seem to subvert the financing, procurement, and distribution structure of the district. While Level 5 districts can be under a state receiver, this was explicit in anything previously.
  • The bill dabbles into the MSBA's authority as well, saying that any building for which MSBA has provided funding that is taken out of education use are still okay (and can still be reimbursed) as long as the building is returned to use as a school building within two years (under current law, it could do this, but it doesn't have to). 
  • Charter schools can wiggle around the current 18% cap of a district's Net School Spending if they throw all kids in the district in a lottery OR they're creating an alternative program. Same problem as ever with these, though: no teeth, no enforcement. That can raise the charter cap in districts to 23% of a school district's net school spending.

I would also note the following:
State Auditor Suzanne Bump is due to come out with a report on charter schools later this spring (no one's clear on exactly when). We don't know what it's going to say yet, but moving ahead on any action around creating more or expanding those we have is silly when a comprehensive report is on the horizon. The Legislature should absolutely not move ahead of the auditor's report.

This bill remains in House Ways and Means. I would urge you to contact your state senator and state representative if any or all of the above concern you.

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