Public Policy Updates: March 2024 Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education held their regular March meeting on Tuesday, March 26 at 9 am in Everett. The agenda of the meeting can be found here; the video of the meeting is here.

This is the first Board meeting at which Acting Commissioner Russell Johnston was in that capacity.


The meeting opened with public comment.

Massachusetts Educational Justice Alliance Director  Vatsady Sivongxay spoke about the upcoming search for a new Commissioner. Noting that the pandemic had drawn increased attention the historic inequities in our schools, she requested the Board appoint a Commissioner who “fully supports the whole student throughout their whole journey,” who has a record on historic inequities and working to close them, and who has strong history of public schools advocacy. She asked that there be a meaningful and inclusive public engagement process, soliciting feedback from multiple groups of stakeholders.

A panel of those proposing the new Felix Commonwealth Virtual School spoke next, arguing there is a “need to continue to diversify the public school ecosystem,” and that their their proposal is unlike other virtual schools, as it is a competency based curriculum and will offer in-person hubs for students. They spoke of the conditions on the certificate being proposed, arguing for a higher tuition rate and commenting that they’d like to “discuss more” the requirement that they provide transportation to the hubs. 

Modesto Montero of Libertas Academy Charter School in Springfield next spoke of the work at his school. He said that the flexibilities of charter schools means they don’t have to use approaches that aren’t working. He spoke of leveraging data to support students, describing twice daily attendance team huddles, and texting or calling all absent student, plus including incentives for attendance or make up days.

Rabbi Toba Spitzer of  T’ruah, a Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, said she was at the meeting to respond to a discussion on antisemitism and the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition by DESE. She said that T’ruah opposes any effort to codify definition of antisemitism within policy or law, as they fear formal adoption could take away from important work. She also noted that other definitions exist including Jerusalem definition, and that this definition has been used to cut off free speech. She said that it is imperative that antisemitism not be inherently be aligned with criticism of the actions of the Israeli government.

Next Jake Donnelly, Activism Manager for the Israeli American Council spoke of a presentation by the Massachusetts Teachers Association. He said that the MTA is “working against [the Board’s] efforts to combat antisemitism. Referring to the MTA presentation, he argued that Zionism being equated with settler colonialism is false and that it is false that Zionism is a multimillion dollar effort of the Israeli state. He said he “couldn’t help but imagine” that an upcoming MTA webinar on Black history month would be presented by David Duke.

Kahris McLaughlin spoke about laws being proposed across the country that remind her of Nazi Germany, legislation that defines diversity, equity and inclusion as hate words.” She said she intends to continue to speak up for children who cannot speak for themselves.”

David Magen, a senior at Marblehead High School, spoke of his experience with materials he was given in class which use the word “Palestine” for early history; he said that it is an erasure “of the the word Israel” and that it is demonizing the Jews. He said in homework he said that there is “no relationship between Judaism and Palestine” and that being asked that the question was antisemitic. 
His mother Yael Magen mother says that the MTA presentation last week was “filled with antisemitic tropes.” She said “being anti-Zionism is taking away the right for Jewish self-determination.” She said, “ever since October 7, I feel I am living” in Nazi Germany.

Tyrone Mowatt spoke about gifted students especially in underrepresented populations. He spoke of some of the information shared, and he spoke in support of the virtual school proposed.

Secretary Tutwiler welcomed Acting Commissioner Russell Johnston, saying that he was looking forward to working more closely with him, and that he had already “really leaned in.” He announced that there are three new early college partnerships—East Boston High and Fisher College;  Southbridge High and Quinsigamond Community College; and Taunton High and Bristol Community College–which should yield enrollment of about 9000 next year. The Secretary also announced that 60 new members of Youth Advisory Council to Governor Healey were sworn in this week. 

Acting Commissioner Russell Johnston said that he was truly honored to be at the Board as Acting Commissioner. He said, “I really want to ground our work in our education vision, that all students are known and valued, that their experience in our schools should be real world, interactive, and relevant, and that all students can achieve at grade level or beyond with the appropriate individualized supports.” He noted the later item on the agenda focusing on mission and vision.
He noted the updated Department of Public Health guidance, aligned with the CDC, on respiratory illnesses. Noting that he is himself the father of an 18 year old, he spoke of the ongoing issues with the FAFSA and the delay in results that is happening; he said he wished “to elevate the importance of this topic for this Board.” The federal Department of Education will be allowing the state to share with schools who has completed the FAFSA, allowing them to follow up with those who have not. He added the importance of such action for students to receive state aid, particularly those who are undocumented. He spoke about the support for the Brockton Public Schools, with which the Department has an agreement as far back as 2020; the Department has supported high quality instructional materials, educator evaluation, the safety audit, implementation of MassCore, and the recently completed financial audit. Finally, related that he had been at a subcommittee in Holyoke the previous evening, that he had called the mayor of Holyoke the same day that he was appointed acting commissioner to make arrangements to meet. He said, “like a good bureaucrat, I brought along our regulations” specifically to look at what is in the regulation to extend aspects of receivership into locally controlled districts after receivership. He said he was most impressed by the subcommittee focusing on “how will we continue improvement?” That subcommittee will be meeting over the next six months to produce a written document to that end; Johnston praised the Holyoke School Committee’s grasp of “procedural action.”

The Board next turned to the Commissioner search. Chair Katherine Craven announced that the Request for Proposals for a search firm is now posted on the state’s site; it will close on April 24. She said the search will follow “an orderly process” and will take several months, during which there will be monthly updates at the Board meetings. Once the responses to the RPF are in, they will be scored by herself, Vice Chair Matt Hills, and Secretary Tutwiler. Member Michael Moriarty suggested debriefing those who had participated in the last search. Member Dálida Rocha asked for any feedback on the last process. Hills suggested also speaking with former Chair Paul Sagan.

The Board then took up the proposed new virtual school. Johnston noted that it has been ten years since a new virtual school was last proposed. The proposed school would have up to 700 students in grade 9-12 statewide  under the conditions set by the Department. They would be authorized for the $$14,523 per pupil maximum amount at this time, which is paid from sending district’s chapter 70 aid. The law provides a tuition amount that “shall not exceed the state average per pupil foundation budget for students of the same classification and grade level;” Those running the school may request an increase in that. Johnston turned to Student Member Ela Gardiner and Hills who were at the public hearing for this. Gardiner said that it was a small but supportive hearing. Member Marty West said that one of the few positives of the pandemic was sparking innovation in learning, though he said there was less of this in Massachusetts than elsewhere. He said he was excited about the leadership team with “deep experience in serving students in the Commonwealth.” He urged a conversation about the funding level, saying virtual schools don’t cost less money. He also was concerned about the conditions set around access; Johnston said that the Department wants to ensure equity in access. Member Gardiner said she was “blown away” by the positive support at the hearing, and she thought well of the hub model. Member Mary Ann Stewart asked what happened if the school didn’t meet the many conditions put into place; Johnston said that there is flexibility, where time can be extended or removed, or additional time can be given. Stewart said during the height of the pandemic all of the emphasis was “a lot was said about getting kids off screens and into classrooms.” Member Ericka Fisher said access to the hubs was a concern of hers, that access to hubs needed to be across the state. She agreed “it does seem somewhat contradictory to what we were saying during the pandemic…it seems contradictory to the messaging we’ve been giving to districts.” Craven listed places a bus ride may take an hour. She said she was excited by “much different model…things that a bricks and mortar school are usually responsible for.” Hills said he struggled similarly with what Fisher had noted. 
The certificate was approved with the conditions proposed by the Department. 

The Board last turned to a report on the Department’s mission and strategic objectives. Johnston opened by telling the Board that they are the audience for this right now. He said that when he was a superintendent, “I was on the receiving side” of DESE work,” and, “while the creativity was always clear” was not always clarity in how those spoke to each other and if they were timed well. The document sets out as Department goals the following: 

•  By 2026, the state will return to pre-pandemic levels (or higher) of the percentage of students meeting or exceeding expectations on the MCAS
•  By 2026, the state will return to pre-pandemic levels (or lower) of the percentage of students who are chronically absent.
•  By 2026, at least 85,000 high school students will be enrolled in a designated high school college-and-career pathway or program.
•  By 2026, the percentage of diverse staff in schools and districts will increase by at least 4 points to 17.9 percent.
•  By 2027, the state will offer structured professional learning on evidence-based practices for literacy for all teachers and administrators with responsibility for early literacy.

The Department is focused in each case on what this will looking like in a classroom.

They have then added strategic objectives to each goal:

Deputy Commissioner Regina Robinson, presenting on this section, asked “what does it mean to educate the whole student…fostering joyful, healthy, and supportive learning environments…so that all students feel valued, connected, nourished, and ready to learn?” She spoke of the many front line workers in schools that have an impact on student experience in schools. 

On the objective relating to a diverse workforce, Johnston spoke of teacher diversification grants, alternative routes to licensure, and teacher apprenticeship programs.

Chief of Schools Komal Bhasin speaking on the MCAS and career objectives section, said there are over 100 programs under this strategic objective, and now all academic programming now has to include all practices. The objectives in this section are: 

• increase from 44% to 60% (a 36% increase) of the state’s K-8 schools that have adopted high quality instructional materials (in at least one new content area: ELA, math, science)
• increase from 25% to 50% (a 100% increase) of the K-8 schools that have adopted evidence based early literacy curriculum, as defined by meeting the definition of high quality instructional materials in grades K-3
• increase from 26% to 30% (a 15% increase) of the state’s high schools that have adopted high quality instructional materials in at least one new content area

In Board response, Gardiner said that she was so excited that her younger sister’s high school experience will be vastly different than her own. She asked. about personal finance

Fisher said that she appreciated the new guidelines for the education prep program, speaking as a higher ed education department chair. She said it supported more urgency and the ability to do more with inclusion of culturally and linguistically sustaining practice. Rocha said she was excited about this, but also that a sadness was with her. She asked how we measure joy. Robinson said that we know everything rises and falls on leadership, and there are so many different adults from the time a child leaves their home through their day. The Department, she said, would be “looking under the hood at the systems…recognizing the value of local control” but look at what is happening. Craven asked if there’d be a standing item on the agenda on this topic, and said the Department should “repeat, repeat, repeat” the message on “high quality learning materials.” Stewart said she was “struck by the shifts in practices that are ongoing” and she asked what the environment is around joyful learning?”

The Board adjourned and next meets April 30.