Editorial: Don't weaken education reform

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

Nearly 20 years after the state stepped up its education reform efforts, it's clear that schools can improve and students excel. Massachusetts students consistently outscore their peers from other states in standardized tests.

But it's also clear that the state's worst schools have not improved, despite raised expectations and increased resources. The achievement gap persists between white and minority students, between students in the poorer cities and those from more comfortable suburbs.

The problem isn't just the students, though urban children often start out with deficits in language, study skills and support at home. Massachusetts has also learned through experience that the right schools can reach the most challenged students, that energy, innovation and accountability can turn schools around. We've seen it in charter schools, and in other new public schools where dynamic leaders have the authority and vision to do things differently.

What we need are more of those schools, led by educators who can get the job done. Creating those schools is the main thrust of the education reform bill adopted by the state Senate last month. The bill would lift the cap on new charter schools in consistently underperforming districts, authorize a new class of "innovation schools" similar to charters but supervised by local school districts, and give greater authority to state officials to take over and turn around failing schools.

Support for the bill, which incorporates several of Gov. Deval Patrick's education initiatives, has been boosted by the opportunity to win up to $250 million in federal "Race to the Top" money. The Obama administration has tied eligibility for that money to state education reform efforts, including reducing restrictions on new charter schools. Applications for the program are due Jan. 19, which is there is pressure on the House to act on the bill as soon as formal sessions resume in January.

But there is resistance as well. Some lawmakers want to reduce the amount of money district schools lose to charter schools in their communities. Some are looking to restore state regional transportation funds cut by Patrick earlier this year.

The biggest objection, though, goes to the heart of the effort to turn around failing schools. Teachers unions and labor leaders, including the head of the powerful state AFL-CIO, object to provisions taking away the requirement that unions approve the creation of new Horace Mann charter schools and empowering the administrators of underperforming schools to reconstitute the faculty and modify contracts.

The unions refuse to support any measure they say will reduce collective bargaining rights. But those contracts handcuff administrators, and are a big reason why it has been so difficult to turn around schools that have been failing for decades. Whether in the public or private sector, even the best manager can't bring change to an organization if he or she cannot change its employees.

Teachers and union activists have been lobbying legislators for weeks to strip the reforms from this bill. They need to hear the other side from people who understand that you can't fix broken schools without fixing their faculties. Without real reform, the "Race to the Top" is just another cynical dash for federal cash.

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