The Changing Face of Boston Schools

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Jamie Vaznis reports today on the possibility that there will be 12 new charter public schools in Boston, even as the superintendent of Boston’s district public schools is seeking to shutter a number of underperforming schools under her purview.

Of the 20 proposals for new charter schools, 12 seek to locate in Boston. The Boston applications aim to create more than 6,000 seats over the next five years, but the state law caps new seats in the city at about 4,500 — meaning state education officials will have to reject some applications even if the proposals have merit.

Of course, the Board could also simply reduce the number of seats made available in the charter school proposals. And my guess is that the Board will approve a certain number but attach conditions, such as (in the case of a charter seeking to create a few new schools) allowing one new school to open this year and another next year, if the first performs well.

Vaznis continues:

The additional campuses should be a boon for parents who are dissatisfied with their local school systems — thousands of Bay State students are on charter school waiting lists. But the expansion is likely to come at the expense of local school districts, which lose thousands of dollars in state aid for each student who leaves for a charter school.

The decision on the number of charters to be approved will be made by the Board of Education on February 28th. The impact on the Boston public school system is potentially significant and follows attempts to change other important levers in the system.

Closure and consolidation of schools: Underway. The superintendent has made the case over and over again that investing in teachers and teaching is more important than continuing to carry costs on the surfeit of Boston district school buildings, especially when there are thousands of empty seats in the district schools. The costs of maintaining all of the buildings has been estimated at around $20 million.

A revamped choice program: Not really sure where this stands. The superintendent put out a couple of proposals to increase the number of school-assignment zones for Boston’s middle and elementary schools, as a way to shorten bus route lengths and save money.

A new teacher contract: Soon to be negotiated. Mayor Menino’s December speech was an important signal that he sees the new contract as critical to making sure the district schools can compete with charter schools, with METCO, and with private school choice options. He focused on three goals for the contract (from the city’s perspective):

  • Give heads of school “the flexibility to put the best teachers where they are needed most.” That’s a big one, because it would require loosening up seniority bumping rights.
  • Reform the teacher evaluation system and tie some aspect of teacher compensation to student performance (and more specifically to improvements in student performance).
  • Lengthen the school day so students have more time on task.

Obviously, that is all going to be very difficult to get done. The Boston teachers union is an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, which is not the union (the Massachusetts Teachers Association) which recently suggested an openness to tying a small portion of teacher compensation to student performance.

Change school funding so that education dollars follow the student: Proposed. This would create a sea-change in our district schools and probably have the biggest impact of all four actions either proposed, underway or in negotiation. A Globe editorial today notes that:

SUPERINTENDENT CAROL Johnson is proposing that the Boston School Committee adopt a “weighted student funding’’ formula as part of an $829 million budget for the next fiscal year. The concept is straightforward: A specific amount of money follows each student to his or her school; the amount varies according to the specific needs of the student; and principals have a lot of flexibility on how to use the money.

It’s a good way to address inequities in school funding that have built up over the years. The current system is prone to problems resulting from the careless application of enrollment data and programs that switch from school to school and year to year. A large high school of 1,200 students maintains the same staffing level even after shedding 400 students. And a small school with an influx of special needs students receives too little in the way of additional resources.

The consolidation/closure of schools, the revamped choice program and a “new and improved” teacher contract are all devoutly to be wished for. A fair and transparent funding plan for our schools that recognizes the primacy of the student rather than the system’s bureaucracy would also be a huge step forward.

The problem is the speed at which they are getting done and, to be honest, whether they are going to get done and have meaningful results. That is all up for discussion, political gamesmanship and more. These ideas have been around for a long time. I hope that Mayor Menino and Superintendent Johnson succeed in advancing these reforms–reforms that have been discussed for a number of years. They are needed in order to give principals and teachers the focus and flexibility that charter schools currently have.

Meanwhile the charter movement continues to move ahead. Now.