Turnaround model in Massachusetts
If there is a test case for Andrew Cuomo's controversial push to give state officials broad powers to overhaul failing schools, it is taking place in Massachusetts, which passed a law in 2010 that is similar to what the governor is pushing for here.
The result won't do much to allay the fears of New York teachers' unions that Cuomo's real aim is to transform traditional public schools into charter schools, since charter groups were among those chosen by Massachusetts education officials to implement turnaround plans in chronically underperforming districts.
But what's happening in Lawrence, Mass., a city of 76,000 people about 30 miles northwest of Boston, is a little more complicated than that. The Lawrence school district, which is the first to be put under state receivership, is embracing a hybrid school model. And education officials there say it's working.
"What we've done in Lawrence is not a traditional district system nor is it a charter school system," said Jeffrey Reilly, the state-appointed receiver of the district who acts as superintendent. "What we've done is created a third way of doing business."
Massachusetts commissioner of elementary and secondary education Mitchell Chester said the state receivership in Lawrence has helped to break down the "impermeable wall between charters and existing public schools.
"There has been animosity between the two sectors," Chester told Capital during a phone interview. "It would be overstating it for me to tell you that that animosity has been smoothed over. But what I am seeing is very hopeful. We are taking early steps, and we now have some proof points, some illustrations of where charters are working in districts in a turnaround space and not under the charter law, which creates the room to have a conversations about how charters and traditional districts can work together."
Reilly, who Chester appointed in 2012, is in his third year as receiver of Lawrence's 28 schools, which serve roughly 14,000 children, many of whom are Spanish-speaking immigrants.
Since Reilly took the reins, the percentage of students scoring proficient on state exams has increased slightly, from 41 to 44 percent, in English language arts; and more dramatically, from 28 to 41 percent, in math.
Graduation rates are up from 52 percent in 2011 to 67 percent in 2014. The drop-out rate has fallen from 8.6 percent in 2011 to 4.6 percent in 2014.
The district had two schools designated by the state as high-performing when he started; now, it has six.
Charter school operators have contributed to the schools' improvements, but there are major differences between a school operating under the state's charter law and one under state receivership that's being operated by a charter network, officials said.
"Under receivership, when the state takes over, we're no longer bound by the collective bargaining agreements or the budget and staffing decisions that have operated up until the receivership, so the state had the ability to make changes," Chester said. "We have complete control over the budget. Where collective bargaining agreements are an impediment to implementing the turnaround plan, we can implement changes … and we have control over staffing.
"So a charter operator that's a receiver for the state has those kinds of autonomies that they would have under a charter law. Where it's different is they are no longer governed by a non-profit board; they are now working under contract to the state."
As Reilly explained, that means charter operators who take over failing schools don't have a lottery; they have to take "the neighborhood kids," which is significant because a common criticism of charter schools is that they avoid enrolling the neediest students. The schools also have to hire unionized teachers.
As part of Reilly's turnaround plan for the district, he spared high-performing schools from changes. He addressed low-performing schools' needs individually. While one is being run by a charter operator, another is being run by the local teachers' union, and others are under control of organizations that focus on educational management and school turnaround strategies.
He cut down district administrators by a third and replaced half of the district's principals. He also fired 10 percent of the teachers.
"Some people said you should fire all the teachers," Reilly said. "But 90 percent of the teachers, in my opinion, were great, good or working hard to improve, and I can work with those kind of people."
The district and union agreed on what Chester calls a "revolutionary" contract that includes pay incentives based on performance rather than seniority and offers teachers stipends for longer school days rather than paying them hourly for additional time, which wouldn't have been financially feasible.
"This effort has not been an anti-union effort. It's not been a union-busting effort," Chester said. "We've sought out the counsel and advice and opinion of the union. We haven't always agreed, but we have been respectful of the teaching force in Lawrence, and what's remarkable is that we have a collective bargaining agreement in place in Lawrence that is revolutionary and that the union has ratified."