Public Policy Reports: June Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education met for their regular monthly meeting on Tuesday, June 18, 2024 at 9 AM.

Note that the Board had met online the evening for a presentation by Harvard Graduate School of Education Thomas Kane on his “Education Recovery Scorecard,” a recording of which can be found here. The agenda for Tuesday’s meeting can be found here; the recording of the meeting can be found here. The Board also met jointly with the Board of Higher Ed on Thursday, June 20 on lessons from research; early college; and FAFSA; a recording of that meeting may be found here.

The meeting opened with public comment. The first comment was regarding the state’s use of accountability, specifically regarding early literacy. The second referenced the Racial Imbalance Advisory Council, commenting we are still “not getting it right for kids of color,” and suggesting that superintendents should be penalized for kids failing. A Vocational Education Justice Coalition panel spoke regarding vocational admission, noting that post-Board change in vocational admission “in every category…the gaps either got wider or remained the same” with 85% of schools having two more categories 10 or more percentage points lower of admission than more privileged peers; they stated “the glaring gaps in admission rates…has continued with DESE’s 2021 policy changes having zero impact.” They described it as “an admissions scheme that is fundamentally broken.”
At this point, Member Mary Ann Stewart asked a question of the public commenters, to which Chair Katherine Craven noted that there had been a complaint filed with the state on this issue, and thus the Board members should not discuss it; it also was not on the agenda. Stewart nonetheless persisted in asking what data was reviewed.
A public comment followed regarding the Everett Public Schools, with concerns raised over recent treatment of students, over police at public meetings, at resignations of staff, and the superintendent search.

The incoming student member introduced himself: Yiannis Asikis lives in Brookline and attends Boston University Academy.

Chair Craven then referenced the prior evening’s meeting, complimenting Member Marty West for setting it up, and commenting on”data for kids needing to catch up” creating “sense of urgency that I think we all share.” She noted that Member Michael Moriarty has been chairing a “pandemic and recovery” subcommittee and invited him to update the Board on that, ‘though it was not on the agenda. Moriarty said the subcommittee did not yet have its report complete, and went on speak of the prior evening’s Board meeting instead, commenting that parents need more information on screening assessments, and that the vetting of curriculum completed by “state agencies…not third party vendors” was something Kane advocated for and that Massachusetts has a start in.
Craven noted she has received a request from Moriarty that the Board discuss MassCore and from Stewart that the Board discuss vocational education in upcoming meetings; she plans to have more interaction with the advisory boards in the fall. 

Secretary Patrick Tutwiler welcomed the end of “a good year,” noting the improvement in chronic absenteeism “not by happenstance” but deliberate work. Looking ahead to summer, he said he was mindful both of the summer slide and of summer food insecurity, and praised the efforts of districts on programs that are both fun and academic, and the Summer Eats and EBT efforts to keep children fed. He noted the recent awarding of Capital Skills grants, and also, recalling his time in Austin, TX, wished all a happy Juneteenth.

Acting Commissioner Russell Johnston noted the Massachusetts “rate of improvement compared to other states” from the prior evening’s report. He also award the first two Mitchell Chester, named in honor of the late Commissioner, to Arabella Thomas, deputy counsel, (2022) and to Charmie Curry, statewide systems of support, (2023). 

Chair Craven announced that the Board would be sending the bid for a search firm for the Commissioner’s search back out, as the state has not received multiple options meeting the specs. They should expect an update in the fall.

The Board then turned to the annual report of the Statewide Student Advisory Council, given by departing student member Ela Gardiner, who first outlined the SSAC, noting that each high school in Massachusetts elects two members to serve on their regional councils, from which the statewide council is created. It should be noted that having each high school represented remains a challenge; further work by districts on ensuring that would be useful. This year the SSAC had four subcommittees as follows: financial literacy; MCAS graduation requirement; recycling and composting in schools; Narcan and CPR instruction. 

on MCAS graduation requirement:
disproportion impact on low income, EL and people with disabilities
increasing language accessibilities
increase of accessibility and knowledge of portfolio alternatives
note that new MCAS contract makes steps
Gardiner stresses that a group of students focusing on DEI “did NOT find” that eliminating the requirement was their recommendation

difficult for Department to impact wide discrepancies across districts
how can this be related to work done by the Department?

lack of first aid education
one of MA states that doesn’t require CPR
93% of reps said school doesn’t instruct in Narcan
group made a whole classroom curriculum on Narcan

Asked what could be improved, Gardiner noted the lack of both actual student members, particularly in western Mass, and attendance by members. There are issues with transportation the Council continues to wrestle with, but she said “there are plenty of student advocates in the state.” She reflected also the importance of representation across the state as a “white woman, who goes to Wellesley” High, and stressed again the need for efforts to communicate the existence of and the work of the SSAC.

The schedule for next year’s meetings was accepted.

The Board next turned to this month’s report DESE’s Educational Vision, which focused this month on support for newly arrived homeless students. Before turning it to the panel, Acting Commissioner Johnston reminded the Board of the pieces of the vision, and also announced that DESE has now published the second annual Catalog of Aligned Supports to districts and schools, which is, he says, all the opportunities (PD, grants) in one place at once. Next will be implementing system monitoring, planning for professional learning, timeline and expectations for next year’s planning.

Opening the panel was Komal Bhasin, DESE Chief Schools Officer, who said the work was done “with a deep belief that our students are capable, competent, and creative.”
Kristin McKinnon, Student and Family Support (DESE) noted that more than 31,000 students in MA are homeless this year; 85% of public schools report serving at least one homeless student; 40-70 districts serve most students who are homeless. The overall rate is an increase of about 20% over last year. Most students are doubling up with others, with only about 1/3 using shelters. The state has provided financial support: $1000/students to meet immediate needs; $104.89/student/day (expended to date $23M); accelerated payments for eligible districts to address transportation costs to “school of origin” (expended to date: $700K). 
Allison Balter, DESE Language Acquisition, said many students described on language learners and some have disrupted education. The Department provided a self-assessment tool for districts to uncover what they most needed, as well as translation and interpretation; training and stipends for EL and SEI endorsed; PD and coaching; assessment and direct technical assistance.

Superintendent Steve Zrike of Salem said that this worked aligned with the Salem Public Schools’ mission: “belonging, equity, opportunity.” He spoke of the importance of their being a consistent message from leadership: to remind others to the benefit of welcoming new community members. “New families are an asset, never a burden,” he said. He also stressed the importance of meeting with families to listen and learn about their experiences. 
Ellen Wingard, ED of Student Supports for Salem Public Schools, said cross-departmental work was crucial, both at the district level, at the school level, and with city departments. Among supports provided were family resources; transportation; language access; staff training; adult career technical programming. Zrike echoed that transportation continued to be an ongoing need for families. Wingard further stressed the importance of the message from leadership being that new families were welcome and an asset.

Vice Chair Matt Hills asked if it was better “from a policy, not a morality bring students into a smaller number of communities” with experience serving such students rather than having such students in many different communities, some with less experience in serving such students. 
Bhasin responded, “with respect, our policies are influenced by our values,” and added the work is throughout the state.
When Hills persisted in the question, Johnston said he “just want[ed] to double down on what Komal said” in building capacity throughout the state, wherever students are, saying, “we’re going to take the students where they are…to meet their needs.”

Moriarty said, “these are expensive problems to solve” and that he believed that the educational agencies of Massachusetts are carrying an undue part of the burden.

Member Dálida Rocha said, as a former newcomer student herself, she appreciated the report and the work. and noted that Massachusetts has one of the greatest varieties of newcomer students. She wondered about districts that previously served no such students and now are. She also asked about transition work for families who may have moved out of homelessness. Bhasin said that they’d found in working with schools, that “this is one of their favorite things about their school” for students who attend schools with newly arrived students: the diversity of students. Zrike said that this is yet another piece of evidence of the importance of staff that represents students. He said Salem is currently transporting students; they will be doing transition work over summer. He lamented that the “students who need the most stability get the least stability”. He said, “they’re asking for help from us–I wish I had the authority–to find housing in Salem.”

The Board next received an update from DESE CFO Bill Bell on the budget. He noted that the state FY25 budget is in conference committee, and “we await the final bill.” On the federal side, the Department is winding down the ESSER obligation with about 64% claim rate for ESSER III, and thus still close to half a billion dollars left. Bell said he  “expect[s] that to drop substantially over the summer.” Districts can with a state-provided extension spend through February/March 2026. Member Marty West asked if, since this is subject to state approval, they could put in “more prescriptiveness” on how the funding was spent. Bell said that districts are currently spending money for which the state already approved district-created and -approved plans; he said, “there’s not a new ‘what they can spend it on’; we’ve already blessed their grants.” Craven followed up by saying that they’d heard from Kane the prior evening that the state could direct spending of up to 3% federal Title I as a “direct student services set aside” and asked could “we reach in” to direct the spending of those dollars for each district. Johnston replied that the Department would want to “we would want to engage with” stakeholders on any such proposal, as districts are used to getting 100% of their funds, and then would only get 97%.

The meeting then adjourned. The Board next is scheduled to meet on Tuesday, September 24.