“Zombie” bill angers public school parents

zombie billThe Parent Imperfect took the time this past Wednesday to write that no deal had been reached on the bill to lift the cap on charter schools in our state. Normally, the failure of a bill to get a positive recommendation from the relevant committee would be the kiss of death, at least for the current session. But this is not just any bill. As many feared, the failure to gain the support of the Joint Education Committee created only a minor annoyance for the drive to create open season on charter school expansion in Massachusetts.

Little did I know that the people in the Massachusetts Legislature who feel that lifting the charter cap is the critical next step in educational reform in Massachusetts wouldn’t even wait 24 hours to resurrect the idea. Before Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz could even communicate with her constituents about what had happened, her illustrious Joint Ed Committee Co-Chair, Rep. Alice Peisch, had done the deed. The State Rep. from Wellesley created a new bill with a new number and without the language on charter reimbursements that so bothered charter growth proponents. Under the new bill, there would be no cap on charter expansion, even if the Legislature declined to reimburse even one cent of its legal obligation to school districts for charter tuition payments. The maneuver made a joke of all of the hand wringing around a supposed compromise on the original bill.

Citizens for Public Schools called the new Peisch bill a “zombie” bill, which I think nicely captures the nature of the legislation. Not only did Rep. Peisch produce the zombie bill in record time (it was certainly being drafted as the compromise charade was underway), but she managed to get it approved by a voice vote at a sparsely attended session of the House of Representatives (is there a roll call in the House?). I disagree completely with what Ms. Peisch did, but you have to admire her cheek.

More and stopPeisch delivered to charter proponents what Sen. Chang-Díaz had refused to give them…legislation to remove the cap on charter expansion with almost no conditions. In less that 24 hours, public school districts and the families who depend on public schools had been “peisched.” That is, outmaneuvered by a legislator with a strong personal commitment to education reform, and little or no sense of accountability to urban public school districts and the families that need them. A reasonable person might ask if Rep. Peisch’s alleged personal involvement with charter and other educational reform organizations might create a conflict of interest, or at least a conflict of conscience for her on this issue.  One might wonder such things, but, in Massachusetts, such questions often go unanswered. Any conflict here would, of course, pale in comparison to the conflicts that abound in our “government by checkbook” at all levels.

The Peisch bill still must clear several hurdles to become law. The Senate must approve it and the Governor must sign it to name two such hurdles. Charter expansion obviously has as many powerful friends in the Legislature as it has outside of it, and the governor has expressed few reservations about creating more charters. That said, the public discussion of this bill has educated many in the community, as well as some in the media and more than a few members of the Legislature about the lack of accountability of charters and the financial and other pressures on public schools that result from charter growth. This is not a slam dunk.

Merely getting peisched one time will not keep these people from continuing to make their views known. I remain hopeful that the zombie bill–or at least the charter cap provision–can be put on hold. For the umpteenth time, I do not oppose charter schools or think existing schools should be closed down. They should be more accountable on many issues, and their number should not be significantly expanded until policymakers understand much better (and address in a policy) the impact of such expansion on traditional public schools and their students. Ultimately, if we want to establish a separate system of essentially independent schools, we should find another way to finance those schools that does not drain financial and political support from public school districts.

If you are concerned about the zombie bill, take a few minutes and contact your State Representative and/or State Senator on the matter. If you’re not clear who this is, it’s easy to find your legislators and their contact information.

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No Deal on Charter Cap

Charter demoThe Parent Imperfect arose to the news that the cap on charter school expansion in Massachusetts remains in place, at least for the moment. Boston. com reports that last minute efforts to push through a compromise crafted by legislators apparently could not gain enough support in the Joint Committee on Education.

The bill will now leave the Committee with a negative recommendation. It is still possible for both the House and the Senate to vote on a bill not recommended by a committee, but this is a rare occurrence in Massachusetts politics. If Massachusetts keeps charter limits in place, it will be bucking a national trend toward rapid charter expansion, regardless of the cost of such growth to public school districts.

While I did not think that the compromise worked out by Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz and Rep. Russell Holmes would have been a step forward for public education in the Commonwealth, Chang-Díaz, in particular, deserves credit for holding the line on her insistence that a lifting of the charter cap be accompanied by a State House commitment to fully reimburse school districts for charter tuition payments.

Opponents of lifting the cap will awaken happy that the current limits remain in place, but we have certainly not heard the last of this issue. If it holds, this failure of charter proponents to gain support for further charter expansion may improve the BPS budget picture in the medium run. Even so, the district still faces serious problems with its 2015 budget,  which will be voted on by the School Committee tonight. Many questions also remain concerning the District’s new school assignment process, which has yet to prove that it can provide equitable access to quality education for all the City’s children.

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Lion Tamer Strikes Out

Lion TamerIt’s a good thing that the Parent Imperfect cares enough about all educational perspectives to receive information made public by the Mass. Charter Public School Association (it must be because we applied to a charter years ago and are probably still on the “waiting list”). How else would I know what certain people are saying about me?

As the pressure builds toward a vote on the much-awaited “compromise” language to lift the cap on the creation of new charter schools in the Commonwealth, the Association is pulling out all the stops. They shared with charter supporters a letter sent to Joint Education Committee Co-Chairs, Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz and Rep. Alice Peisch. Desperation must have driven them to turn to such a tasteless bit of communication (flawlessly written, but tasteless).

I am familiar with the battle being waged between district and charter schools, with a strong group of voices emanating from QUEST, a group of predominantly middle class parents from Jamaica Plain working to minimize the educational choices of other families in Boston with lesser means. Should the children of parents in Mattapan remain on a charter school wait list for years because another group of parents, with far more choices at their disposal, say so?

So, it’s a battle? The military metaphor starts things off with just the right tone. I’m “battling” with my neighbors, my friends from church and the parents of the kids on my daughter’s soccer team. I have different opinions from people who matter to me. I take those opinions very seriously, my friend, but I’m not “battling.”

I suppose my friends at Quest should be happy to draw the attention of a person of such stature, but I could do without it. I can’t help but wonder how the writer has come to know so much about everyone’s “means.” It must be wonderful to be all-knowing.

If members of Boston’s teachers union can opt to send their own children to private and parochial schools (and many that I know do), where is the equity in denying families without comparable means from having additional public school choices in the city where they reside?

What a dynamo! She’s also an expert on the means of BTU members and where they send their children to school!! But there’s that word, “equity.” She shares an interest with Quest in equity, which has to be the silver lining here.

…but when groups like QUEST condemn charters for not serving these groups in adequate numbers they ignore Boston’s exam and pilot high schools that also hold restrictive admissions policies. In fact, most members of QUEST that you met with earlier this week have children at Boston Latin, where — out of 2,400 students, 00.1 percent are ELLs, and 1 percent are SWDs. No charter school in Boston has ratios this low.

That’s called “going for the jugular.” If my children happen to go to Boston Latin, then of course I can be shamed into silence about how schools should be run in Boston. Why, then, is the writer not shamed into silence? I find it soothing to know that at least some Boston Latin parents are allowed to have opinions. And just how does the women know who met with the Senator this week and where their children go to school? I bet the NSA doesn’t even know that (at least not yet).

Just for the record, Quest, to my knowledge, does not “condemn” charter schools in anything like the way Quest is “condemned” by our writer. To my unending frustration, dear Quest said almost nothing about charter schools until about two weeks ago, at which time this organization of “means” (that has yet to be able to get up a website) dared to QUESTion whether or not lifting the charter cap was best for ALL children in the city (including those in Jamaica Plain and Mattapan). If you haven’t signed the petition, do it right now!

If you have wasted perfectly good hours reading these ravings before, you know that my children have been at the Hernández, the Hennigan, the Irving and now both have ended up at the nation’s oldest public school. (Yes, I plead guilty, as charged. Take me away!) You know that I have celebrated wonderful things about all of these schools, and railed about the harmful and silly things that sometimes go on in each of them.

And then, on to the dramatic conclusion:

Educational opportunity should be a choice, not a game of chance.

Hah? Educational opportunity a choice? She must have had a deadline that forced this to fall so flat at the end.

right to educationDear friends, equitable access to quality education is the right of every child, not a choice, a game of chance or something we do for young people because we’re good adults. If we believe that my child, the writer’s child and every child in the City has a right to education, then we have to look at every policy from the perspective of its effect on everyone. We may not be as clever as our writer, but we do the best we can.

This is not a simple question, from a rights perspective, but I am convinced that more charter schools–while they may offer “choice” to a small number of kids–will have a negative effect on the system that has to educate everyone. Whoever set up the funding mechanism for charters must have known that this would happen. I know many families who swear by charter schools and some very committed educators who are sacrificing their lives to make these schools work. We have agreed to disagree on this issue, but we manage not to treat each other as our ghost writer has treated people who don’t happen to share her views.

Beware when the lion tamer strikes out…

 

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A “Third Way” or the charter way?

Chicago charter posterThe Parent Imperfect has a strong sense that the fix is in on lifting the cap on charter school growth in Massachusetts. I fear that the fix will leave public school districts with less resources to educate the vast majority of students in the state that will always attend traditional public schools. As always, the kids will pay the price of a bad “compromise.” The Dorchester Reporter reported yesterday that Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz and Rep. Russell Holmes have reached a compromise to lift the current legal limit on charter expansion (the charter cap).

It’s important to note that this is a compromise between two legislators intent on raising the cap, and charter boosters in the community, like the Mass Public Charter Schools Association and Paul Grogan of The Boston Foundation. I have nothing against either legislator: It just seems important to be honest about what has happened. Parents, teachers and concerned members of the community who don’t want to see the cap lifted were conspicuously absent from the debate and the compromise.

Charter school growthAs we write here, 2130 people have signed an electronic petition circulated by the Boston parent group, Quality Educaton for Every Student to the Senator and her house Co-Chair of the Joint Education Committee, Rep. Alice Peisch of Wellesley. The petition does not stake out an “anti-charter” position, but simply says that it makes no sense to divert more money from public school districts at a time when many of the most challenged districts face serious budgetary problems. This year, 42% of state funding to education in Boston went to charter schools educating about 13% of Boston’s students. What will that percentage be when charters have 20% of students in the City? How many teachers will get laid off that year? The compromise apparently gives this concern a nod, but then goes forward to lift the charter cap, anyway.

For now, all we know about the deal is what the dealers say about it. Rumor has it that a vote will come on Tuesday, so we’ll know more then. Sen. Chang Diaz’s office released a statement trumpeting the fact that the deal includes a commitment to pull the plug on charter growth if the Legislature doesn’t fulfill its legal responsibility to reimburse districts for funds diverted from those districts to pay charter school tuition. That’s very nice, but it hardly seems like a stunning victory for schoolchildren that we are obliging the State House to follow its own laws.

At the base of this so-called “third way” is the perception that we need, at all costs, a “safety valve” for families who believe that the Boston Public Schools are not educating their children well. According to this argument, more charters will offer more such families such a choice. I know families in this situation. You probably do, too. They truly believe that a charter school has saved their child (or children), and some of those families definitely want more charters to open. I also know that charters have proven to be a very unreliable safety valve for many of those same families. Proportionally, charters educate way fewer English Language learners and students with special needs than the public schools, who must take everyone. Fully half of the students who turn to these schools as an alternative can’t adjust to the charter environment and end up back in traditional public schools (or out of school, entirely). At a meeting with BPS parents last week, Sen. Chang-Díaz acknowledged these concerns and promised language in her compromise that would demand charter accountability around just these issues. Her statement mentions no such language in the final bill. I hope the language just slipped the minds of those spinning the compromise.

If charter schools are a safety valve, then they make for an expensive and leaky valve at a time when urban districts like the BPS are under tremendous budget pressure. Rather than divert resources to a separate system of schools with precious little accountability, let’s focus our efforts on changing the way business is done at Court Street and on continuing to improve Boston’s schools, one at a time. I just don’t see an alternative if we want to offer Boston’s students great educational choices. Step one along this path will be the selection of a new Boston School Superintendent who understands the problems faced by the BPS, and possesses a vision that can mobilize all stakeholders to tackle those problems.

The Globe reports that charter boosters are unhappy with the Holmes/Chang-Díaz compromise, because it places even weak conditions on the charter expansion fiesta to come. The pro-charter lobby smells blood and thinks it is in a position to get everything it wants. They may well be overplaying their hand.

Make you want to holler? Take a moment to read and sign the Quest petition. Then HOLLER!

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Boston’s Budget Blues

Cuts hurt kidsThe Parent Imperfect joined about 65 other hearty souls at last night’s public school budget hearing at the Hyde Park Educational Complex. BPS proposes filling a “sixty million dollar hole” in the school budget with 89 teachers, 109 paras, 26 administrators, a whole adult ed program and lots of yellow school buses. Sixty million makes for a big hole. No one who dragged themselves out of the house last night did so to express their support for the cuts.

School Committee Chair, Michael O’Neill made a valiant effort to lighten things up a bit in his welcoming remarks, but few attendees were in that kind of mood. A senior financial officer of the BPS went through the now familiar slides. Only through a combination of pink slips, program cuts and transportation service changes could the District balance this year’s budget. If the draft budget presented last night became a reality today, 223 people would lose their jobs, Boston’s unique adult education program would all but disappear and middle school students eligible for transportation would be on MBTA buses, instead of yellow school buses.

Yellow busesAll of these cuts would be necessary, despite a decision by Mayor Walsh to increase City government outlays for the School Department by 3.8%, while asking all other departments to take a 1% cut. The combination of ordinary cost increases, drastic declines in State and Federal support and contract-mandated salary increases had created a budget hole much deeper than what the City could fill.

Upon hearing the news, sixteen members of the audience paraded to the microphones to say, “don’t do it!” They included parents from the BTU School, the Roosevelt, the Philbrick, the Mendell, the Curley and the Lyndon, all schools facing the loss of teachers and valuable programs. Teachers and students of the Adult Education Center spoke eloquently of its importance in their lives, and the members of one class came to the meeting together for a “lesson in democracy.” A leader of Boston’s Special Education Parents’ Advisory Council spoke, as did Tim McCarthy, the City Councillor from Hyde Park who committed himself to fight on the floor of the City Council to avoid cuts to schools now moving in the right direction. Most in the room stood as others spoke, showing that they weren’t there just to speak for their issue.

One parent from West Roxbury cut to the chase quite nicely. “In two weeks of looking at this, I’ve discovered that the real solutions are two: Chapter 70 allocations and charter reimbursements. If I have figured this out in two weeks, you certainly can, too.”

State support downShe was pointing to the real fact that the current State budget limits spending on public education through Chapter 70 and that the formula for allocation this money has been changed in ways that work for some smaller cities, but definitely work against Boston. She was also pointing to the fact the $85 million in Chapter 70 money goes directly to charter schools. The Legislature is supposed to reimburse part of this through a separate appropriation, but they’ve been hedging on that in recent years, and not even this inadequate reimbursement has happened yet this year.

She’s right on about the immediate pressure points, but I hope we can effectively advocate with State officials without losing our conversation about how the BPS is making decisions about the money that is in the pot now.

As the meeting ground to a close, the Chair spoke directly about his own resistance to cutting an Adult Education program that has existed for over 100 years. He also said that he was ready to “join forces” with parent groups and other advocates to go to the State House to ask for more money.

Parent groups in the room seemed ready to join forces with the School Committee to advocate for additional State funds, but they also seemed unhappy with a lack of transparency in how budget decisions are being made in the District as well as with the content of many of the decisions concerning the allocation of existing funds. Joining forces will only work if all are interested in an open partnership, and I still have questions about the District’s openness about its decisions.

Meanwhile, the clock ticks. The School Committee must pass a balanced budget in three weeks, or the scene shifts to the City Council, where a knock down, drag out awaits a very new Council. Very soon, something has to give.

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Re-Inventing Advanced Work Class: A Dozen (+2) Quick Thoughts

3 in AWCIt is the time of year when the AWC program is causing some parents of 3rd, 4th and 5th graders in the boston Public Schools to wonder what to do next year. Do they leave their child in the place s/he knows and has friends, or do they opt for the “other track” of Advanced Work?

Thankfully, this is one discussion that Liz and the Parent Imperfect won’t need to have this year. We probably couldn’t survive another round of that. Recently, however, I fell into a very interesting e-mail conversation about AWC among some BPS parents active in their own kids’ schools. I can’t help but share some tidbits from it here, doing my best to obscure the names of parents and schools. My purpose here is not to promote one or another point of view, but to show that thoughtful people have quite different views (and interesting) about this program.

1. At [our school], parents have come together with teachers and the Principal to try to remake the awc/non-awc divide academically and culturally for next year, and we are cautiously optimistic.

So I wanted to have a sense of what schools are doing so we can learn some lessons…

2. We had an tour of our school for prospective AWC parents yesterday. Half of them were genuinely moved and pleased with the ideas we are considering for [changing] AWC. The other half took out their pens and crossed the school off their list… 

3. Your school is similar to one in my neighborhood in that AWC kids largely come from inside the school. Don’t be so hard on outsiders; many of us are turned off by the idea of sending our child into an environment where most of their classmates had been together for years. It’s not exactly welcoming to hear, “We’re full with our own….

4.  I would encourage you to consider the training of a literacy coach at the 3-5 level for your school.  Until teachers have deep and solid skills in a workshop approach to literacy instruction, it will be difficult for them to manage differentiation across the range of learners we’re talking about. The literacy coach provides in-house professional development for their cohort teachers (in this case 3-5, but it could possibly be expanded to 3-6; or train a second coach 6-8), as well as bi-weekly coaching visits – forever. The training happens through the Literacy Collaborative at Lesley University…

This should be a model the district leverages to address equity and differentiation…

5.  From what I can tell kids at our school are on a very broad spectrum of current capacity to handle [the the training on executive function], but they’re all doing it on some level and all learning skills to manage information, plan time, etc.  And yes there ARE kids with IEPs in the AWC classroom at the school…

Advanced Work II6. I wonder if it would be helpful to look at other schools where there is no AWC, very mixed classrooms in terms of academic skills, and where families choose to stay… as maybe we could assume that something is going right in those classrooms. It’d be easy to come of with a list anecdotally, but wonder if the info would also be accessible from BPS.

 It sounds like there are some interesting ideas about how to integrate the classrooms. Our experience at the school that our kids attended, is a bit different, as there are completely mixed classrooms, with a very small exodus for AWC, though a fair number of kids who get in. Thought maybe some of the lessons could apply though…
7. Hearing things like this make me feel better about even staying involved in this equity fight. The awc segregation is so disturbing and everyone tells me it is political suicide to be strongly against it. It is good to know some people are trying to mitigate this…
8.  …whatever AWC is or is not (and AWC classes vary and have their own inequities), it can’t be separated from the exam schools. BPS I think sees AWC at heart as about keeping middle class parents in BPS, and on the pathway to exam schools…
9. …I went to schools to see about transferring my daughter and was astounded at seeing what is basically tracking and racial segregation in several of the school I looked at. It seems to me that it is an unspoken bargain to keep middle class kids in BPS at the expense of poor kids and kids of color…
10. Interesting the interest and increased difficulty of getting into AWC coincided with the recession. Wonder if things will shift again now with housing prices being more fluid as Boston real estate continues to rebound and surpass…
11. The whole AWC thing creates different dynamics for those at schools that have AWC vs. those at a school without it. I have a appreciated the rigorous instruction that my son has received in an AWC classroom, but I have not understood why the curriculum and method of teaching…(teachers seem to have a lot more flexibility) shouldn’t be available for all kids? It seemed like everyone would benefit from the approach…
12. There can be lots of opportunities for all 4th/ 5th graders — regardless of AWC or reg ed or multi-lingual classrooms — to go on the same field trips (including to DC), be in the same chorus, school play or on the same sports team. This was true at the school my kids attended…
13. It is really great to hear about what is happening at the school where the parents are trying to change AWC. I look forward to learning more about this initiative...I don’t think there is a single white child in my son’s AWC class (though there may be one or two in the grades 5-6); his AWC class is under subscribed – only 17 students – and has historically been under subscribed. One child left to go to AWC at another school and I know others would have left if they could have gotten in. That said, there is probably more of distinction in economic levels – with the middle class kids clustered in AWC program.
There you have it, fragments of a back-and-forth among people who care. You can cut the ambivalence with a knife. But it’s great to see that some schools are trying to do something about AWC, rather than just send their kids there and wish it didn’t exist.
Will your child be going to AWC next year? How are you feeling about it?

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Helicopter Omen?

Helicopter parent 2A couple of years ago, Boston’s best site for news, the Universal Hub, picked up one of the Parent Imperfect’s posts about the nation’s oldest public school. I love the comments that come when that happens as the Hub definitely attracts a different crowd than the PI faithful.

I won’t be able to find the comment now, but one ardent fan said something like, “Nice helicopter parenting. Why don’t you get a life and let your kids have theirs?” I can now say that I honestly didn’t know what “helicopter”parenting referred to when I saw that comment. That comment, rude as it was, led me to read a bit about the problem of parents insisting on living their kids’ lives for them. I had never though about myself that way.

Fast forward to yesterday morning. Since Vince started at the nation’s oldest, we’ve been carpooling with our neighbors to get the kids to Forest Hills, where they take the charter bus to school. Now that Connie also goes there, the morning has become that much easier. Regardless of how cold or rainy it is, our neighbor drops them at the bus, but I’m an easier mark. I occasionally drive them all the way into school, despite the traffic problems that accompany that decision. I’ve not seen evidence that the kids particularly appreciate it. I probably do it because it makes me feel better.

Yesterday was a cold morning, but not too cold. I drove all the way in because Ms. Connie had been up very late finishing a big project, so I thought a ride in to school might make Monday’s beginning a little easier.

Train disasterJust about 45 minutes after leaving the house, I was in the home stretch, returning on South St. near the famous stone arch that is the scene of Boston’s worst train disaster. I was listening to the news and thinking about what I had to do before going to work, when a small silver pick up came careening around the corner in the opposite direction. I moved slightly to the right as a reflex, but it wasn’t enough.

The salt on the road probably allowed the driver to maintain control of the truck, even though s/he was going too fast. The salt could not, however, keep the load on the truck. In the blink of an eye, ten-foot lengths of 2-inch cast iron pipe were airborne out of the bed of the truck. Before I could even wet my drawers, two of the pipes smashed into the car (Liz’s car, that is).

I stopped in the street, in shock for a second, but not in too much shock to beep my horn as the truck slowed for a moment, and then sped away. Too late, I realized that I needed to get the license plate. I tried to do a U-turn to follow the truck, but there were three cars coming along in the other direction (it was rush hour, after all). By the time I got turned around, s/he was long gone (I know there is a 90-95% chance it was a he).

police officer did show up at my house about an hour later. When he saw the damage, he said, “Damn, I’ve never seen anything like that” (the auto body shop said the same thing to Liz). “You know, you’re blessed…that one that hit the front could have killed you.” I hadn’t really thought of that.

When I suggested that the driver might try to come back to pick up his pipe, the very nice cop said, “Maybe he’s at Dunkin’ Donuts. I’m going to go over and check.”

Really?

So, the car is being fixed. I went back to the scene about 20 minutes after the cop left and, sure enough, the driver had come back and picked up the pipe. Maybe s/he went for coffee afterwords and fell into the clever trap.

Everyone I tell is very sympathetic. Here’s one response: “Glad you still have all your vitals.  When things like this happen I take it as a lesson about something.  Figuring out what that is (pay more attention!) is the trick.”

Don’t give up your day job for counseling! I could have been more attentive, but I couldn’t have avoided the pipes. I don’t think the lesson is about attention. But could it be an omen about the helicopter? My last memory of the pipes is that they were spinning like propellers as they came off the truck.

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