Education ‘reform’ bill will hurt, not help

January 8, 2010
By

A sweeping new law that will weaken public schools and hurt children is racing through the state legislature. The law is being sold with false claims that the changes are necessary for securing federal “Race to the Top” funds. Not only is that mostly incorrect, but districts must use the money in specific ways that will not solve their huge budget gaps.

This bill has passed the Senate and will come up in the House (House 4410) this month. Thousands have called their representatives with concerns, but more calls are needed to counter the powerful forces backing the bill’s passage.

By blaming teachers and principals for most educational problems, this bill ignores many causes of low academic achievement, particularly the consequences of poverty and unequal and inadequate school funding. It lets corporations and rich people who don’t pay enough taxes off the hook. It ignores the failure of many district leaders to implement effective teacher and principal evaluation and professional development that improve instruction. In short, it blames the less powerful while absolving the most powerful.

Superintendents will be able to change teacher contracts unilaterally, bypassing both unions and local school committees. The bill concentrates enormous authority in the commissioner of education, trusting him to make positive changes. But overly concentrating power, removing checks and balances, is as dangerous for democracy as it has been for the US economy.

The bill will dramatically expand the number of charter schools in Boston. Contrary to public relations spin, most charters do about the same as other schools, and some do worse. Charters largely avoid students who are more expensive to educate. Twenty percent of Boston’s students are classified Limited English Proficient, compared to fewer than 2 percent of Boston’s charter students. Regular city schools enroll nearly twice as many students with disabilities as do Boston’s charters.

The legislation requires charters to file more reports, but it does nothing if the schools fail to enroll more of these students. It also does nothing if charters keep pushing out kids who are harder to educate. Some charters graduate well under half their enrollees. If these were regular public schools, they would be labeled “dropout factories.”

The bill’s supporters claim it will improve the state testing program by looking at more than MCAS scores. In fact, it merely provides two ways to use MCAS scores. Parents recognize their children are more than test scores and need more than test prep, but this law does not. It fails to create a system with varied forms of assessment. Now the state plans to use MCAS scores to rate teachers, which will intensify pressure to ignore untested subjects and teach to the test.

It’s understandable when parents who have suffered from inadequate schools look hopefully at promised alternatives. But this scheme will undermine public control and fail to improve education. The House must reject it.

What Massachusetts really needs is a plan to improve and equalize school resources (which can be done if the wealthy pay their fair share), strengthen teaching and leadership, ensure parents can be engaged in their children’s education, move away from one-size-fits-all testing and not blindly expand charter schools.

Monty Neill
Lisa Guisbond
Steve Backman

Monty Neill is a JP resident and director of FairTest, where Brookline parent Lisa Guisbond also works. JP resident Steve Backman is president of Database Designs. All three are on the board of Citizens for Public Schools.