Chester plan for Lawrence falls short on ideas, options

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In November, state Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester announced he will  name a receiver with “all the powers of the superintendent and school committee”  to right Lawrence’s troubled schools, where about 80 percent of students score  in the two lowest categories on MCAS exams.

The announcement is hardly reassuring on at least two counts. First, research  demonstrates that school turnaround efforts across the country have yielded  meager results and aren’t a scalable strategy for fixing troubled urban  districts.

Second, the state’s education leadership doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.  In his very first budget, Gov. Deval Patrick proposed defunding the state’s  independent educational accountability office. Is it any wonder that the  Merrimack Special Education Collaborative flouted financial controls and misused  more than $10 million?

Then there is Chester, who orchestrated the 2010 process that will replace  Massachusetts’ academic standards and MCAS, both national models, with weaker  national standards and assessments.

The justification for adopting weaker standards came from three studies  financed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has also invested  more than $100 million to promote national standards.

Alarmingly, according to Boston’s WCBV-TV news, even as they were considering  adoption, Chester and state education officials accepted flights and luxury  accommodations from organizations that supported the national standards.

Chester persuaded the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to  indefinitely postpone making passage of a U.S. history MCAS test a graduation  requirement. As a result, schools across Massachusetts have de-emphasized  history instruction.

Chester also led the Patrick administration’s push to integrate so-called  “21st century skills” like “global awareness” and “cultural competence” into  public-school curricula. In the late 1990s, Connecticut was among the states  that took this soft skills-based approach, only to see reading scores plummet.  That effort was spearheaded by none other than Mitchell Chester.

Then there’s the ongoing lawsuit over the questionable approval of a  Gloucester charter school in 2009. In that case, both a Superior Court judge and  the state Inspector General have accused Chester of lying in a sworn affidavit.

Instead of a state takeover, what Lawrence parents need is access to a menu  of educational options with a track record of success, like charter schools,  vocational-technical schools, METCO and private-school choice.

There is no other education vehicle that has a better record in alleviating  achievement gaps than charters. And the state’s 26 regional vocational-technical  schools perform exceedingly well on academics and also have minuscule dropout  rates.

The METCO program, currently allowing Boston and Springfield students to  attend suburban schools, could easily be expanded to Lawrence.

Finally, Lawrence families need more private options, like Catholic schools.  Opposition to private-school choice stems from state constitutional barriers  that were a result of 19th century anti-Catholic bigotry.

States like Rhode Island and Florida grant individuals and corporations tax  credits for donations to nonprofit organizations that award private-school  scholarships. Such a program will likely pass constitutional muster.

Even under the best conditions, top-down, command-and-control school district  turnaround efforts have had little success anywhere.

Chester’s lackluster record makes the prospects for success even dimmer.

We should stop wasting time and money on what hasn’t worked: Give Lawrence  parents options that have.

About the author: Jim Stergios is executive director of Pioneer Institute, a  Boston-based think tank.

Also seen in Lowell Sun Online