Lawrence Eagle-Tribune: Lawrence’s big school problem needs a big, bold solution

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Jim Stergios The Eagle-Tribune

The usual rules apply when things work, or at least aren’t disastrously broken. That’s not the case when 15 years of failing schools have culminated in every other student dropping out.

Yet this is precisely what is happening in Lawrence, and the city and state have simply pretended that the adverse impact is not there.

Each Lawrence dropout likely costs Massachusetts citizens $300,000. Not all have considerable innate talent, but many do, and we are squandering their economic potential. Those without unique talents can still be productive citizens, but we are not benefiting from their hard work.

The children of dropouts are far more likely to remain in poverty, excluding entire generations from the possibility of upward mobility — a core value of American society. We are relegating City of Lawrence to permanent ward of the state status.

For a long time, nearly 100 percent of Lawrence’s school funding has come from the state. Citizens from around Massachusetts are subsidizing systemic failure.

It’s gut-check time. After Hurricane Katrina, the country watched as droves of people with no prospect of upward mobility poured into stadiums and the streets looking for refuge from a natural disaster. Thankfully, neither wind nor a surging Merrimack is forthcoming, but we have stood by as cohort after cohort of students has remained impoverished, unemployed, and incarcerated.

People will always be born into poverty, but imprisoning them there is not the American way. Cities will always be gateways for new immigrants, but holding down the rise of their children is not the American way.

For two decades, Massachusetts’ response to the riddle of Lawrence has been well-intentioned, but not remotely up to the task of giving the city’s 13,000 students access to the schools they deserve. In the late 1990s, two new superintendents took the reins with high hopes that they could implement much-needed changes. The second was only recently removed as part of criminal proceedings that led to embezzlement convictions.

Now the commonwealth has a new man and a new plan. Receiver Jeff Riley is capable; the plan a good start. But it is just a start. Its goals are modest: Lawrence will be among the best older, industrialized cities in the state. By definition, that means their performance would be below state averages.

Much has been made of the sizable roles five charter operators have being given in Lawrence schools. But only 1,000 to 1,500 district students will be served by these operators. The extent of the flexibility granted them is ensconced in memoranda of understanding, the interpretation of which depends on relations between the local teachers union and the superintendent/receiver.

If we are to again rely on one person to turn around the district, success will also depend on how long Riley stays. We’ve seen this movie before — it played out in other districts: New York City with Joel Klein and Washington DC with Michelle Rhee. As Riley himself notes, it’s never really been done successfully.

So what’s the right path? Is it to charterize the entire district at once, as happened in New Orleans after Katrina? Five years later, New Orleans students were outperforming Louisiana state averages.

Or is it DC’s approach, in which 42 percent of students are in charter schools and the number increases every year? That would require making 4,000 Lawrence seats available.

If it were done, a dozen charter operators would step up to meet the challenge tomorrow. Lawrence is close enough to high-performing Boston charters to take advantage of their existing funding networks and talent pipelines. And the opportunity to do something big is precisely the kind of challenge that energizes charter operators, principals and teachers.

It is hardly a radical idea; just a response that is equal to the seriousness of the problem. We should not continue to subsidize schools in which half the students drop out and many go on to engage in behaviors that will require future subsidies.

The usual argument against large-scale charter expansion is that dollars would be transferred from the district to public charter schools. That argument doesn’t apply here; state taxpayers already pay for Lawrence schools.

We own the problem. It’s time to suspend the usual rules.

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