Contrary to the fears of many, state government kept the extensive funding commitment–over $7 billion- made in the Education Reform Act of 1993. Now, every community in the state is spending at or above “foundation budget” levels. The truly grotesque conditions faced by students in money-starved districts such as Lawrence, Fall River, and Holyoke have been greatly reduced if not entirely eliminated. This is a great accomplishment.

By reducing these inequities, we have been able to start moving toward the goal of providing every Massachusetts child with adequate educational opportunity. MCAS performs the critical function of shining a harsh, dramatic, and very public spotlight on how far we still are from achieving that goal in the only aspect that really matters–student performance. Many are uncomfortable with what the test reveals. But MCAS makes it impossible to hide the truth that in all too many school districts many students are not learning enough to earn a high-school diploma that really means something.

Over time, armed with new resources and under the pressure of the MCAS graduation requirement, many low-performing districts are showing improvement. But some are not. The next great issue for policy-makers to address is what should happen to districts and schools that fail to show reasonable improvement in student performance. Even more importantly, we must decide what we owe the children currently enrolled in these schools and districts. That may involve taking dramatic action to give them what their communities have not–a good, 21st-century education.

Two questions immediately arise: How do we define reasonable improvement? And what response is appropriate for the state to take against schools and districts that are not meeting that standard? Reasonable improvement should be based primarily, though not exclusively, on the state’s performance measure, the MCAS. Exactly what level of performance–or, more to the point, nonperformance–should trigger state action will have to be decided by the state Board of Education. But there is no avoiding the reality that some schools and some districts will show themselves unable to make the grade on their own.

When that day comes, the political and institutional pressure will be for a slow, measured response to evidence of school failure. Some will argue for more money and more time for these schools to turn themselves around. At first blush, this position is not unreasonable. As a society, we have never come to terms with how much it costs to educate underprivileged students to the high standard we are now setting. But such an approach simply puts off the inevitable, at the expense of our children.

If a district or school has made no discernible progress with the resources they’ve been given since 1993, there is no reason to believe that more money will make the difference in the future. The same goes for time. Education reform has been underway for eight years now. How long can we ask children, most of whom have no other options, to wait for their school to offer them a reasonable chance for education? At some point, the state has to take responsibility for those schools and school districts that have been unable to make the grade.

So what do we do with failing schools and districts? There is no silver-bullet answer to this question. But the answer will not be found in caution or timidity. The state must be prepared to intervene on two fronts. We must be prepared to impose change where change has not occurred, and we must offer choice where waiting for change has become too much to ask.

Imposing change

Elsewhere in the country, state intervention has been attempted, with limited success, in hopes of turning seemingly hopeless schools around. Some strategies have worked better than others. We need to study all such attempts and use the most successful models as guides. At a minimum, the state must be willing to impose the following measures on schools and school districts that do not meet the standard for reasonable improvement:

  • Appointment of an outside monitor or receiver or school assistance team. The monitor must be given the power to make significant personnel changes as necessary.
  • Personnel should have to reapply for their positions, and there should a state-financed plan to recruit high-quality principals and teachers.
  • A school or district improvement plan should be created and approved by the monitor with a clearly established focus on improving student performance.
  • An adult accountability system should be established with significant rewards and punishments tied to student performance goals.

This list is illustrative, not exhaustive. The point is, when a school or a district has been certified a failure, it’s time to do what’s necessary, not what’s palatable.

Offering true choice

Turning around a failing school or school district takes money, effort, and resolve, and it will not happen overnight. But we cannot continue to keep children and their families imprisoned in a system that has shown itself unable to produce acceptable results. We owe these children and their families alternatives to the schools that have failed them. That means we have to offer choice–choice that goes beyond the limited options provided by the local school district, often on a lottery or other restricted basis, and beyond the charter schools that exist now–most of them with long waiting lists.

To provide true choice for these long-suffering victims of dysfunctional schools, we must create new options. To do so, we will have to free ourselves of old fears and doctrines. We must encourage the creation of many new schools not governed by traditional local control or existing employment agreements. We must allow for more charter schools, perhaps by removing the current statewide cap in designated areas. We should entice colleges and universities to help in the creation of innovative new schools. We need to work with existing private schools to get them to consider starting public “partner” schools in districts that have been unable to develop effective schools on their own.

And we should expand the option of inter-district school choice. We need to create a market that will encourage the creation of alternatives, and to do this we should be willing to give parents and students in these failing districts a check–yes, a “voucher”–to be used at an alternative school of their choice.

Meet the Author
Choice is empowering. So is competition. People of privilege have known that for years. Yet we have been willing to let that concept seep into our system of public education only grudgingly, in as cramped a fashion as possible. Resistance to more open-ended school choice and more vigorous competition has hidden behind claims that these measures would “undermine” our public schools at the expense of those students “left behind.” But in the case of schools that are certified failures, this concern is particularly misplaced. The children we are talking about have already been “left behind.” At this point, choice is the least we can offer them.

Improving educational opportunity for all children is the great public enterprise of our time. It is hard work that requires policy-makers to be courageous and educators to embrace change. How to deal with failing schools and school districts is perhaps the most difficult of all the educational challenges that we face. If we allow ourselves to stay mired in worn-out dogma and restrictive politics, we will deny another generation of poor children a reasonable chance to participate in American life. If we free ourselves from the limiting constraints of politics and old thinking, we have a chance to make real progress.

Former state representative Mark Roosevelt, co-author of the Education Reform Act, is a member of the state’s Education Management Audit Council.