When schools aren’t delivering, state has duty to intervene

Receivership or other steps are a moral – and legal – obligation

I’VE OFTEN, and recently, heard arguments that state intervention in school districts is an assault on democracy, even racist. I disagree. Access to literacy is a fundamental right and foundation of democracy. Inaction by public bodies charged with ensuring literacy for every child is the real assault on democracy.

In Gary B. vs. Snyder, a bold decision handed down in April by the US Court of Appeals, the court declared that “the right to a basic minimum education—one that can plausibly impart literacy” is “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.”

Gary B., a case centered on the Detroit schools, is a great read and a solid review of educational history. I’ve never seen literacy discussed in such detail in a legal decision. In fact, searching McDuffy vs. Secretary of Education, the case that loomed over the state’s passage of the landmark 1993 Education Reform Act and arguably the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s most consequential educational decision, I discovered the word “literacy” is never used. The conclusion that literacy is a fundamental right is an important legal advancement.

The Gary B. case will not be heard by the US Supreme Court, because the State of Michigan quickly settled after losing the case.  As a result, it only has persuasive value outside of the federal 6th Circuit. But it is very persuasive — and should be heard by state education boards everywhere. Even the dissent stresses that policy makers need to get to work on literacy.

Without fail, when the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education invokes receivership, (or circumvents it, as with Boston’s recent agreement with DESE for shared powers), it is perceived as a loss of vital rights for a community’s voters.

The complaints from local stakeholders usually focus on maintaining power for school boards and superintendents, and arguments that local political influence, hiring decisions, and collective bargaining agreements must be preserved and untouched. School committees were first authorized in 1789 after the Massachusetts Constitution was ratified. Their composition, powers, and manner of election or appointment have been adjusted many times over the last few centuries. But the moment state intervention is discussed, stakeholders pretend that some immutable foundation of democracy is under assault. This is simply not true.

These various powers of local officials are the prerogatives of adults. With clear evidence that the majority of a district’s children aren’t reading proficiently, these adult rights are in conflict with the right of children to literacy. Millions of US children are denied their right to literacy annually, with proven negative impacts on future success in the economy and in society. In a struggle over conflicting rights, there is no contest. When poor outcomes never change under the status quo, the state not only has the option of intervening, it has a duty to do so.

A school district’s administrative structure, politics, and bargaining agreements can raise tremendous barriers to innovation and improvement. Advocates for early literacy, especially in urban communities, should be more open to state intervention.

It never goes unnoticed that receiverships always impact disproportionately poor, non-white and non-English speaking communities. It is a grim reality that the worst outcomes strike where poverty is highest — predominately communities of color. When state intervention is at hand, some voices are quick to play the race card. Since these are the same places where the right to literacy has been denied most egregiously and disproportionately for decades, passively accepting promises that “we’ll do better now” — if not racist itself, is certainly foolish. State intervention has to happen first where the problem is most severe.

Going forward, why not operate on a very simple principle? Every public elementary school should teach most of its little kids how to read. In 2019, 318 schools, exactly one-third of elementary schools in Massachusetts, missed that mark. Our Commonwealth has a lot of work to do.

Detroit’s state intervention was a terrible experience that accomplished very little. Just declaring a receivership isn’t enough. State agencies aren’t hiding silver bullets, and building partnerships is certainly better than imposing change.

Meet the Author
Any intervention has to be part of an intense and decisive community focus on achieving reading proficiency by 4th grade. This is a birth-to-eight challenge. Universal training of the science of reading, timely screening for known barriers like dyslexia, and tiered instruction are real paths to better outcomes. More openness to innovation and fewer barriers to move beyond hidebound and ineffective practices are essential.

Under the Massachusetts Constitution, inertia violates the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s statutory and constitutional mandate. State agencies have no business waiting for the US Supreme Court to force change. The Gary B. decision arrived at a very strange time, when all educators are stressed and distracted by coronavirus. Even so, this great, well-reasoned call to action ought to be heard.

Michael Moriarty is a member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. He is executive director of the OneHolyoke Community Development Corporation.