By Jamie Gass and Charlie Chieppo
Local education officials were up in arms earlier this year when Pioneer Institute proposed giving the Commonwealth the power to appoint some school committee seats in urban districts that are mostly state-funded. It would be hard to imagine a better example of why we need to adopt that reform than the current mess in Fall River.
Specifically, state government should be able pick local school board members proportional to the state’s contributions to net school spending. In districts where the Commonwealth provides a majority of the school funding, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education would have the power to appoint a majority of the school committee members to ensure a focus on academic improvement and accountability.
In 2016, Fall River was looking for a new school superintendent. When the school committee sought a search firm to assist them, they voted unanimously to engage… wait for it… the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC).
MASC, along with the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents and the state’s two teacher unions, form Mass Partners for Public Schools, which for 20 years has opposed virtually all the Commonwealth’s most successful K-12 reforms, including academic standards, high-stakes testing, and charter public schools.
The Fall River School Committee was chaired by then-new mayor, Jasiel Correia, who has since been indicted twice, for defrauding investors in his technology startup and extorting local vendors hoping to open marijuana businesses. For good measure, he allegedly told his chief of staff that she could only keep her job if she gave him half her salary.
Correia recently suspended his reelection campaign and took a “leave of absence” from his job as mayor. Translation: he retains the title and keeps collecting his $119,000 annual salary until January. His name remained on the ballot and he was trounced on Tuesday.
After its nationwide search, Correia’s school committee chose former state Secretary of Education Matt Malone to be the district’s next superintendent.
Malone has a checkered history. As superintendent in Brockton he spent a good amount of his time fighting against a proposed charter school there, including making insensitive comments about both the fact that one member of the group applying for the charter was 92 years old and that the management company they had selected to operate it is foreign owned.
After the Brockton School Committee voted three years into Malone’s five-year contract not to bring him back, he was appointed state secretary of education by then-Governor Deval Patrick. Beginning in 2007, when Patrick took office, SAT scores fell, as did performance on the 3rd grade reading test, considered the best indicator of future academic success. Next, the Commonwealth ditched its proven standards and assessments for weaker national ones. Massachusetts then became one of a minority of states to see its results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress decline.
When Gov. Patrick’s term ended, Malone applied unsuccessfully for the Boston superintendent job before landing as interim superintendent in Saugus, where he left after less than a year. In a joint statement, Malone and the school committee cited diverging views about the role of the superintendent.
In Fall River, Malone has said his task is to “deepen and sustain what’s gotten us to a level of success.” That “level of success” is demonstrated by a recent state report finding that half the city’s schools perform poorly enough to require “assistance or intervention.”
Malone said 2019 MCAS results show “we’re moving the needle in the right direction.” Then, in a moment of clarity, he admitted that they present “a mixed bag” for the district.
Students’ futures shouldn’t be held captive to the interests of adults in the system. All of this points to the need to dramatically change the way urban schools – and education politics – work in Massachusetts.
There is a path forward. Charter public schools provide an overwhelmingly successful alternative. They bypass what is too often the swamp of municipal politics, and are instead directly accountable to the state. Charters may not be in vogue after a disastrous ballot campaign in 2016, but given that they dramatically outperform other urban public-school options, the pendulum is likely to swing back.
State representation on local school committees not only gives those who are footing the bill a direct say, but it also loosens the iron grip municipal special interests have over local education policy. Fall River is the case study in why this change is so important.
Charles Chieppo is a senior fellow and Jamie Gass directs the Center for School Reform at Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank.