Thursday, November 19, 2015

One Trick Pony ...

Here we go again. On November 18, 2015, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, attended another rally in support of Governor Baker’s legislation designed to raise the cap on charter schools entitled, "An Act to Improve and Expand Educational Opportunity”.  I find it disturbing that the only educational policy coming out of the Governor’s office on how to reform public education continues to be the need for more charter schools. Governor Baker, Secretary of Education James Peyser, Chairman of the Board of Education Paul Sagan have no vision for public education in the Commonwealth other than to continue advocating for the need to increase the number of charter schools in the State. This is understandable given the fact that the only educational experience these individuals have is in working for, and with, the charter school industry. This proposal by Governor Baker effectively devalues the hard work occurring on a daily basis by our dedicated educators in public schools across the state. The underlying implication and theme of this legislation is that students must be saved from failing public schools and charters are the only way to accomplish that goal.

According to a recent press release, Governor Baker has stated that “Every child in the Commonwealth deserves the opportunity to access high-quality education regardless of their zip code or background, and this bill would help make that a reality”. The Governor went on to state that “We have some of the best charter schools in the nation, and this legislation would allow more families access to them, while opening up new opportunities for district-charter partnerships on behalf of communities with the greatest educational challenges”. It is time for the Governor to realize that charter schools are not the silver bullet that will “fix” what he obviously considers to be a broken public education system. Public education is not “broken”; however it is in need of true reform and his stance is counterproductive to that endeavor.

I agree that all children deserve access to a high quality education. That is expressly the reason we need to begin substantive discussions at the state level on how to truly reform public education in the commonwealth. I would argue that we have some of the best SCHOOLS in the country and that the charter school movement has not lived up to the promise that inspired its creation. The idea being proposed by the Baker administration that this bill would also lead to increased collaboration between public schools and these quasi-private charter schools is pure folly. The environment established by this legislation is one that rewards competition over collaboration as one school model succeeds at the detriment of the other because charter schools drain vital resources from public schools.  In this instance this would dramatically impact those communities which need the funds the most.  If charter schools are such a great model for educational innovation, then allow public schools the same flexibility afforded to charter schools and you will begin to see lasting sustainable change in our educational system.

Charter schools were supposed to serve as a place for innovative practices that could then be shared and replicated in the public schools. As the leader of a public school district I have yet to witness the sharing of any those supposedly innovative practices. On a daily basis, public school systems across the state develop and implement innovative instructional practices and new theories for educational change. We then share those ideas freely with each other in a collaborative environment which provides for and encourages professional and systemic growth. This occurs even while we labor in an educational environment where we are handcuffed by a system that is flooded with state and federal mandates, encourages standardization, and ultimately rewards compliance over innovation. These elements working together have a dramatic chilling effect on that innovation. What is truly remarkable is that public schools continue to work together in this environment to initiate and sustain educational change even within such a bureaucratically burdened system.

Additionally, as originally intended, charter schools were supposed to serve student populations whose needs public schools were unable to effectively address. However, this no longer seems to be the purpose as the Governor and the members of his team hold up charters as being superior educational institutions even before anyone has seen the plans or proposals for those new schools. Thus it appears, in his mind, and the minds of those he has chosen to set the educational policy agenda for his administration, that charter schools are inherently better than what he considers to be failing public schools. The accuracy of that philosophy was even challenged by Attorney General Maura Healey in response to the litigation seeking to raise the cap on charters when she stated that “Not all charter schools in Massachusetts are high-performing, in fact, it is not unusual for the department or the board to impose conditions on existing charter schools, or close them because they do not perform as required.”

Recently, at the Joint Education Committee Hearing, the Governor repeatedly held up the Phoenix Academy Charter Schools, such as those in Springfield and Chelsea, as examples of successful charter schools. It is ironic that the only charter schools he pointed to as an example of successful schools in that testimony were charter schools that served a very specific student population: At-risk students in danger of dropping out. These schools actually serve the purpose for which charters were originally conceived; as a complement to the public schools and filling a gap or serving a student population whose needs the public schools were having trouble satisfying. This is far from his current proposal to seeking to raise the cap on charter schools which are designed to supplant rather than supplement the mission of public schools.

In direct counterpoint to his approach to public education are the Governor’s proposals to fight the opioid epidemic facing the state. Although I do not agree with all of the measures he is proposing to address the problem of opioid abuse, the Governor’s strategies evidence a clear vision and concrete strategies to combat the issue. These proposals have stimulated a productive dialogue that is working to initiate positive and productive change in the system. He has accomplished all of this without implying that hospitals, doctors and other health care professionals have failed and that the people of our state deserve better. It would be refreshing if teachers and public schools were afforded the same courtesy.

It is time for the Governor to display the same leadership and vision with regard to public education that he has exhibited in his proposals to address the opioid crisis. Rather than attacking public schools and devaluing the hard work of educators it is time for him to present some ideas for true education reform that engage educators in the process rather than alienate them by seeking to supplant their schools with private charter schools paid for by our public funds. Rather than funnel more money away from public schools into new charter schools, we need to dedicate those funds to improving education for ALL our students, not just a segment of our population as the Governor’s legislation would do. It is time for our executive branch to rally in support of all our kids and schools rather than merely be a cheerleader for the charter school movement. It is time for our Governor to prove he is more than a one trick pony with regard to educational innovation and reform.

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