Early Thursday evening the House completed final approval of the Education Reform bill. It is “on the Governor’s Desk” and a signing is scheduled for Monday morning at 11AM at the Children’s Museum, 300 Congress St., Boston.
While the outline of the bill has remained basically constant, in the last turns in the conference committee, the bill changed in several ways that further reduced the comfort level of teacher unions (who weren’t thrilled with the bill from the outset). They came out hard against it, leafleting the building in the final hours and as a result, the bill passed with a narrower margin than might be expected for a bill that had bipartisan leadership support. The final tally in the House was 97 to 47 — this was an up or down vote to approve the draft worked out by the House-Senate conference committee.
Some of the changes from the House version which I summarized here two weeks ago were:
- The universe of schools that can be placed under extraordinary supervision as ‘under-performing’ or ‘chronically under-performing’ went up from 3% to 4% and they can be chosen from lowest 20% rather than the lowest 15%.
- The primary responsibility for developing a turnaround plan will reside with the superintendent in ‘under-performing’ schools. The last house draft had moved this power up to the commissioner of education — a move which seemed to offer some protection against local arbitrariness.
- If the turnaround plan changes collective bargaining agreements in ways which unions do not agree to, then the plan will be submitted to a quick arbitration process with the commissioner empowered to ‘resolve all outstanding issues’ if the process does not close in a timely way. This provision was an issue during the floor process on the House side. It appears that the final conference language was worse from the union perspective than the House language.
- In schools under supervision, teachers, even those with professional status, may be fired under a “good cause” standard — a standard which is understood by advocates to lead to easier dismissals than “just cause”.
- The bill further loosens the combination of caps on charter schools by removing the cap on total statewide enrollment — the cap on the number of charters remains the same and the permitted increases in charter spending in the lowest performing district remain as they were in the House bill.
- The bill increases the total amount of reimbursement available from the state to a district that loses money to a charter school, but spreads it out further. Current law gives a school 100% reimbursement in the first year, 60% in the second, 40% in the third. The new law would give 100% in the first year then 25% for the next five years. It’s not obvious which schedule a school district would prefer.
At the end of the day, I voted for the bill. I feel that notwithstanding the changes, the risk of real unfairness to employees is low — I think that the visibility built in to the planning process in turnarounds, the appeals to the commissioner and various arbitration elements will make it quite unlikely that teachers will be railroaded. The changes will apply in relatively few schools in with the worst outcomes. In these schools, on balance, I think that it is reasonable to make it easier for changes to occur. Finally, we can hope that the passage of the bill will increase our share of “Race to the Top” funds.
I continue to believe that poor school outcomes are driven more by things that occur outside the classroom — parental and peer support for learning, housing stability, peace and quiet in the family in the evening hours — than by school or teacher performance. I would not join the Governor in calling this bill “the beginning of the end of the achievement gap.” But it may make a difference and let’s hope that the leaders of our educational system use the tools we have given them fairly and to greatest possible benefit to children.