Dear Senators and Representatives,
I write to you again from my seat on the Worcester School Committee, because I genuinely don't know what else to do.
We appear to have taken the entire Commonwealth of Massachusetts and made it a state receivership district over the course of a week, as the Commissioner has now claimed authority well in excess of that granted him by the laws you have passed.
The Commissioner does not have the authority to overrule guidance from the federal government regarding the health and safety of our schools. Yet this week, he has done so, declaring that schools must go back full-time, regardless of community contagion level--in direct violation of CDC guidance--at no more than three feet--in direct violation of CDC guidance--without hybrid available to provide for spacing--in direct violation of CDC guidance--with no reference to ventilation--in direct violation of CDC guidance.
The Commissioner does not have the authority to contravene collective bargaining agreements across the state. Yet this week, he has done so, declaring that districts must go back full time in building learning five days a week, regardless of what provisions are in their negotiated agreements with their local unions.
The Commissioner does not have the authority to make a Schrödinger's cat of time of learning, where remote education does not count for student learning if the district has chosen it, but it does count if the family has chosen it, or if the school delivering it happens to be one of the two virtual schools the state has chartered. Yet this week, he has done so, making this contradiction the state policy of Massachusetts.
The Commissioner does not have the authority to reverse the state funding law based on his capricious definitions of time on learning, where days until the first week of April can be funded for elementary students, however delivered, but cannot be funded after the first week of April, if delivered other than he dictates. Yet, as you know, this is just what he has explicitly threatened.
It will not, I hope, escape your notice that the final consequence once again most hits the districts that have been hit hardest by the pandemic, that were hit hardest by underfunding of education, and historically have been underserved in every way. Those are the very districts most dependent on state funding, by design.
It will shock none of you that these districts have many more students who are Black or Latino, many more students who are learning English, and many more students who are poor.
Those students more frequently attend school in older buildings, more often have bigger classes, and more frequently are hit by every manner of inequity our education and larger societal systems deliver.
I am sure that you have been assured that the Commissioner is considering waivers. I also know that such waivers will be few and will come only after the Department has checked, condescending tape measure in hand, that we meet his lesser standards of safety, rather than the higher ones of the federal government.
Since when do we have lesser standards than the federal government? And since when do we tolerate that for our most vulnerable children?
If the state is making policy that requires waivers for the largest, brownest, poorest, districts, then the state is making inequitable policies, and the Department should clearly be told that it needs to start over.
If it does not do so, it should have the authorities it has granted itself removed until such requirements for them are in place.
It is absolutely outrageous that, during this disrupted, tragic year, with vaccinations ever so slowly making their way into people, with the potential impacts of the new variants still largely unknown, and with this country in a race of one against the other, the state would put the health of our students, our staff, and our larger communities at massive risk in this way.
I would ask you to stop this. I would suggest you begin by suspending or amending for this year MGL Ch. 71, sec. 4a, which is what the Commissioner is citing as his authority to garnish state aid to districts. You might also consider his authorities under earlier sections of Ch. 71 in defining learning time, as well.
As you know, I take seriously our responsibilities to our students. I also believe the state has a role to play in ensuring that we meet those. That is not what is happening now.
As always, I am happy to discuss this further with any of you.
Thank you for your attention,