State control is not the answer for Boston’s public schools

Receivership would be undemocratic power grab

EARLIER THIS YEAR, Gov. Charlie Baker and state Education Commissioner Jeff Riley seemed to be looking to leverage shock doctrine psychology and impose a school takeover scheme known as “receivership” to strip Boston communities of their power and to override democratic governance of the Boston Public Schools.

It’s a policy maneuver that has failed students, families and communities, especially communities with significant Black and brown populations, across Massachusetts. It is ineffective and undemocratic and has no place in BPS – or in any district in the Bay State.

While many agree on the challenges facing Boston’s public school system, the proposed intervention would rob those who are closest to the ground of their voice in shaping their own future. The state board of education heard as much recently when elected leaders, educators, community allies and parents packed its monthly meeting and spoke out against a state takeover.

How did we get here? In March 2020, on the eve of the pandemic, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) released a report highly critical of BPS, creating the narrative of a school system in crisis and teeing up a possible state takeover of the district. To be clear, Boston schools face plenty of challenges, including, but definitely not limited to, the lack of resources for our students with disabilities. But the report omitted important context, including the biased and flawed criteria by which DESE judges schools and DESE’s abysmal track record with school and district interventions.

DESE used the report and the threat of takeover to hammer out an agreement with BPS to improve the district’s schools, an agreement that BPS has been faithfully implementing since 2020.

The timing could not have been more challenging. The agreement was put in place just as the school district was scrambling to figure out how to protect public health and educate students remotely.

While educators have heroically figured out how to make progress, some want to use the collective shock of the pandemic to push through radical anti-democratic changes.

Takeovers are often pitched as urgent and necessary solutions to improve poor academic performance. The rub is that the state bases takeover decisions in part on a DESE-determined list of “low performing” districts that uses outdated, discriminatory, and inaccurate measures of school quality. If the state used the better available measures—growth scores, not achievement levels, as encouraged by top researchers—Boston wouldn’t even be on the list. MIT economists demonstrated that school rating systems like the one used in Massachusetts are heavily biased against schools serving high numbers of economically disadvantaged students and students of color because they put so much emphasis on where students start out versus how much they grow.

The pandemic has only exacerbated the problems with the state’s methodology for judging schools. MCAS tests were canceled in 2020, and the scores from the 2021 tests – administered during the pandemic – are unreliable, by DESE’s own admission.

There is little evidence—both here in Massachusetts and in school districts across the country—that state takeover delivers the intended outcomes. Since the passage of the 2010 Achievement Gap Act, which gave DESE sweeping powers to take over school districts, three districts have been placed into state receivership–Lawrence in 2011, Holyoke in 2015, and Southbridge in 2016. All are struggling to deliver the desired academic outcomes. Southbridge and Holyoke are now the worst-performing and second-worst-performing districts in the state, according to DESE’s rankings.

Ironically, according to DESE’s data, the Boston Public Schools have outperformed all the DESE-controlled receivership districts in English language arts and mathematics at both the elementary and secondary levels. BPS did so both before and during the pandemic. DESE’s data also shows that Boston’s graduation and teacher retention rates are better than any district under state control. Why, then, is Boston being singled out for takeover?

Meet the Author
The last thing BPS needs is more ineffective interventions that wrest control from parents and local communities. Instead, our schools need consistent evidence-based policies, adequate resources, and support for educational solutions that come from our educators, families and students. Not only is receivership wrong for Boston Public Schools, it’s wrong for any school district in Massachusetts.

Instead of enabling power grabs, the Legislature must abandon this failed strategy and take steps to repeal and replace the 2010 law that spawned the misguided attempts to intervene. The process should enlist the voices of educators, families, and other local stakeholders to design better and more inclusive ways to close opportunity and achievement gaps. And it should result in a new policy framework that codifies authentic assessment of student learning; establishes accurate measures of school quality; and augments the role of local control in school decision-making.

Suleika Soto is a Boston parent and organizer with the Boston Education Justice Alliance.