Has the Lawrence school receivership run out of steam?

Turning schools over to charter operators may be the best hope for sustained improvement


Lawrence school receiver Jeff Riley greeting families at the start of the 2012 school year, the first year of the state takeover.


TEN YEARS AGO, engulfed by Katrina, New Orleans was the site of almost unimaginable loss of life, with entire neighborhoods, including the city’s entire network of neighborhood schools, laid low. To stand up new schools and ensure improvement in educational quality in a district long characterized by high dropout rates and low student performance, federal, state, and local governments adopted a decentralizing strategy that de-emphasized the power of the central district office and created public charter schools across the city.

Today, 9 of 10 students in New Orleans receive instruction in public charter schools. The results have been astonishing: The percentage of failing NOLA schools has dropped from 60 to 13 percent, and ACT scores are rising fast, even as the percentage of test-takers has doubled.  Overall, NOLA students have caught up with the rest of Louisiana on statewide assessments.

Massachusetts has extensive experience with districtwide reform efforts, most recently, in the Lawrence Public Schools. The Lawrence schools fell into chaos as the result of a manmade disaster, not a natural one. By 2010, the school system’s finances were in disarray, the superintendent had been indicted and convicted on corruption charges, and extremely low student achievement was pervasive and accompanied by an official dropout rate of nearly 40 percent. The state, which funds by far the majority of the city’s school budget, finally took action.

The state had a clear choice: It could adopt a New Orleans approach or create its own district turnaround model. Around the country, the district turnaround landscape is littered with disappointments, but that’s the approach Massachusetts chose. As the newly state-appointed receiver, Jeff Riley had the power to “charterize” the entire district, disband the school committee, fire all teachers in the district and make them reapply for their jobs.

He chose, instead, the risky and politically challenging path of working within the existing structure, including the unions. Early returns have been promising. Riley, with support from state education commissioner Mitchell Chester, tested out interesting reforms, from refocusing resources on schools (not the district office), leadership and teacher replacements, partnerships that had charter school operators collaborate within the district system, the creation of a union-run school, a career ladder and teacher leadership pipeline, intensive instruction during vacation weeks, and more.

Test scores and other benchmarks have improved significantly. Between 2012 and 2015, the percentage of students scoring “proficient” or better on MCAS rose 16 points in math and four points in English language arts. The graduation rate increased by nearly 15 points and the dropout rate fell by half from 2011 to 2014, all while the system added arts and enrichment back into the curriculum.

Lawrence is no longer Massachusetts’ worst-performing school district. In fact, by state calculations, it has vaulted past more than 40 cities and towns, climbing out of the bottom 10 percent of districts. In sum, Lawrence is the exception to the rule — a large-scale intervention that has tangible results for students.

But is 45 percent proficiency in English language arts and 44 percent in math really success? Is continuous but gradual improvement the right path? Or should we have taken the charter option possibly to achieve bigger gains in a short period of time?

These are important questions for education reformers, with those in Riley’s camp arguing that steady gains while maintaining the broad outlines of the traditional school system have a strong probability of “sticking,” whereas a prolonged fight over “charterization” could have led to chaotic politics.

Those arguing against a chartered district must recognize that gains in student achievement in Lawrence have slowed somewhat and are not adequate. Moreover, they should remember the difficulty faced by even as strong a personality as John Silber after Boston University assumed control over the Chelsea Public Schools 30 years ago. In the subsequent two decades, the BU-Chelsea Partnership aided in stabilizing a troubled district, made some progress, and tested innovations in areas like early education that gave public education reformers much to learn from. Still, it must be stated that student achievement, over time, was not at the level residents, Silber, and the BU management team had hoped for.

Those arguing for the New Orleans model to be applied to Lawrence must, on the other hand, wrestle with Lawrence’s highly factional politics, which has materialized once again this year in the form of another mayoral recall effort.

Both have a point.

From the start, one of my concerns about the Lawrence turnaround model was that too much of the impetus for reform rested in the hands of an individual rather than an impersonal structure.  At some point, the tides of political power, money, and organization, which lie in the hands of the unions, would wear the receiver and his sandcastle of reform down. Or, they could simply wait him out, until he departed, and then wash the entire architecture of reform out to sea.

The erosion may have already begun.

Only three years into the Lawrence experiment, the unions have begun to fall back into a more traditional stance of opposition rather than cooperation. The union is even taking shots at Riley over long-settled state law — the ability not to renew teachers without cause during their first three years of service.

Districts have long not renewed teachers for poor performance, classroom management, and relationships with students and staff, or simply because enrollment swings reduced the staff needs. Riley’s non-renewal of 57 teachers this year hardly makes the Lawrence system an outlier; moreover, he met with individual teachers who felt their treatment was unfair — ultimately hiring back 11.

The union is on the attack for a different reason: The receivership is popular with parents.

Can Riley sustain — and even hasten — progress with this renewed union opposition?  Unfortunately, such progress will require actions the unions may not like, such as more aggressive staff changes and school reforms.

If the past year is any guide, there’s reason to question whether he is up to the task. Last December, Riley unveiled a plan to bolster the underperforming Lawrence High School complex and improve its six schools, which are among the lowest performing high schools in the state. The receiver could have brought in charter operators, but instead opted for a light-touch restructuring, a 9th grade academy, and some deck chair reshuffling in the upper grades.

However riled-up the union may be, going slow on reform in the district right now is paradoxically the worst thing for the union’s membership.  Union leaders would be wrong to interpret the state’s renewals of the Lawrence turnaround plan earlier this year and Riley’s three-year contract last month as a stamp of approval on the job done thus far.

The reality is that these renewals signal no more than the state’s feeling that it had no better options. Sliding back to pre-receivership performance is not a viable policy alternative, and given the charter options available, state policymakers will likely consider a continuance of the current pace of improvement in Lawrence to be insufficient when the turnaround plan and receiver’s contract come up in 2018.

At that time, there are three likely options policymakers will consider in crafting a transition from the Lawrence receivership. One is allowing the district to operate freely, even though it continues to fail to raise student proficiency to even half of those enrolled. Another is a probationary phase, where the state will have an even weaker hand than it does now. And, finally, we are back to New Orleans — decentralizing more schools by turning more or all the schools into Commonwealth charters, expanding vocational-technical options in addition to the Greater Lawrence Vocational Technical School, or creating a METCO-style inter-district choice program akin to the ones in Boston and Springfield.

Doors one and two will foreclose the future of kids for another generation. Door number three was the right decision from the beginning—and we should not be afraid to protect and expand school autonomy and real choices for parents. The only thing that door number three would block is the return to pre-receivership status quo that the bureaucratic special interests appear to be pursuing.

There’s a saying in education: Put a good leader in a bad district and the district will win every single time. Jeff Riley for several years stood that ugly adage on its head, and he did it by promising not to shy from tough decisions — and keeping the promise. But with student performance rising more slowly, and with an ascendant union, we may be at the point where Riley comes back to earth.  We need a redoubling of efforts and faster improvement in student achievement in Lawrence, not a war of attrition between the union and Riley each time an even minor reform is introduced.

If that proves impossible, the state must call for Riley and the union to get out of the way. Four years after the start of the Lawrence experiment, and 10 years after Katrina, it may be time for the state to recognize that it should have applied the New Orleans model.

Meet the Author

Jim Stergios

Executive Director, Pioneer Institute
Jim Stergios is executive director of the Pioneer Institute.

(For a different view of Jeff Riley’s bid at reforming the Lawrence schools, check out this analysis by Amy Dain.)