Public Policy Updates: April 2021 Board of Ed

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education had its regular April meeting on Tuesday, April 20, 2021 at 1 pm. The agenda is here; the livestream is here. The livestream is here

 The meeting opened with public comment. There were two parents who spoke of regarding schools reopening. The first, from Andover, spoke of her concerns that Andover High School may need to run in-person hybrid sessions next fall, with students taking some of their classes remotely in the field house due to limited space in classrooms. She was concerned that the continued requirement of three feet was causing this. She asked, “how can I go to a bar and sit next to a stranger unmasked” and my child can’t sit two feet from another student at school? 

The second, from West Springfield, said that he wasn’t represented by Member Mary Ann Stewart, and asked her to resign. He said that he understood that Member Darlene Lombos was representing teachers and that was why she voted as she did. He asked that districts not be held harmless for enrollment, arguing that districts should lose money for drops in enrollment. He argued that teachers are essential workers, and that if teachers agreed with him, they should drop out of the MTA. He closed by sharing that he is running for School Committee and urged others to do the same.
Dan French of Citizens for Public Schools spoke in support of the proposed changes in regulations regarding vocational school admissions. He noted the disparty impact that the current admissions policies have on students of color, who are learning English, who are poor, who are disabled.
Two current Chelsea Public Schools students also spoke in supporting, noting the disproportionate disciplinary impact there is on children of color. Brown and Black children are more adultified than their white peers while also more frequently attending underfunded schools, and thus have higher expectations with fewer resources than their white peers. One closed, “if we want our children of color to succeed, this policy needs to change.”
Finally, a speaker noted that the update to the comprehensive health framework has been on what appears to be a second break, having started several years ago, stopped, and then been worked on until June of last year. Those who were working on it have heard nothing since then. “Students cannot learn if they are not healthy.” The Board was called on to reconvene the panel; to share the feedback; and to make public comment available on the frameworks to move them forward.

Commissioner Riley noted the FAFSA campaign to encourage more seniors to fill out the FAFSA for financial aid. He spoke of the release of guidance on dyslexia earlier this month. He also told the Board that there would be an upcoming presentation on student mental health with the Student Advisory Council. Secretary Peyser announced the Mass Stem Summit coming up online on May 6. 
The Commissioner further noted that 90% of K-5 schools were back in buildings five days a week by the first week of April, with most middle schools back by April 26. He said that high school will be “sometime next month” but the Board would be told ahead of that announcement. There were 84 waiver requests, 35 approved for grade 5 to go with other grades, 43 for incremental return, 10 denied. The state’s pooled testing has found low positivity, and the state will use federal funds to pay for that through the end of the year.

The Board first turned to the proposed changes to vocational school admissions; the redline edition of the changes can be found here. They moved straight to questions, as they had an extensive presentation on this in February. Member Paymon Rouhanifard expressed concern that the regulations speak of ‘minor’ infractions being what wouldn’t be used to bar admission without ‘minor’ being defined. Senior Associate Commissioner Cliff Chuang spoke of suspendable offensives but further noted that districts are being thoughtful about dealing even with those. Lombos said, “this is the kind of community partnership with the Board that is exemplary.” Member Michael Moriarty was bothered by the “complete silence” on Madison Park in Boston (ed. note: as a Boston Public School, Madison Park is not covered by the state regulations on regional vocational school admissions); couldn’t Madison Park, he wondered, be opened to the students who spoke from Chelsea? Chuang referred to this as a “whole can of worms” as that would involve out-of-district vocational tuition as well as admission. Member Matt Hills asked about the concern Rouhaifard being not clarified in the regulation itself. Caitlin Looby of DESE Legal said the documents set out afterward would “give life” to the regulations. There was a back and forth regarding if further clarity would be needed. The Department does, through the proposed regulations, have the authority to intervene in the admissions process if the results are not in alignment with what is required by the regulations.
Chair Katherine Craven asked if there were any way to change regional school agreements through this process, as Chelsea, for example, is a majority Latinx district partnered with districts that may be majority white, which then affects the enrollment pattern of the vocational district. Chuang said that the regional agreements, “many of which were inked back in the 70’s,” are that which determine if there is a single pool or if each district has set seats; those agreements are not changed by state regulation. Loomy noted there are other ways of solving the problem, through a second shift program, for example. Chuang observed that there is a “huge gap” of students in Chelsea, for example, even applying; there have been districts that have been preventing regional vokes from presenting to prospective students, he said. “It isn’t either/or; it’s both/and.” He wanted to ensure that whatever changes are made, that student agency is not lost. This is a multifront effort, not just a change in regulations. In response to a question from Moriarty, Chuang said this would allow for enforcement that there may not be selective criteria used if a school still has seats available, but there is also an actual appeal at the school level. Stewart wanted to be sure this aligned with non-discrimination language which is “clear and specific.” Chuang agreed that this was focused on underrepresentation (Stewart added ‘of protected groups’), though overrepresentation could be a concern as well, particularly given the history of vocational schools.
The Board voted unanimously to send the proposed regulations out to public comment.  

The Board next took up the proposed world language frameworks, which have been out for public comment. There was significant comment received about the connection with social emotional learning, as well as about the communication emphasis. It was asked that this last, which is intended to parallel the seal of bilteracy, be strengthened with “high level of proficiency” being the description, which was included.
Secretary Peyser, noting the state graduation standard of MassCore requires only two years of world language, was concerned that this might setting the bar, at least initially, too high; he wanted it clear that it wasn’t a failure of the district or the student if that “high level of proficiency” was not met. That clarity, he was told, will be in supporting documentation. In response to a concern from Member Moriarty, the Board was informed that those studying classical languages can receive the seal of biliteracy.
The new frameworks passed unanimously.

The Board then took up several proposed changes to policy and regulation necessitated by the pandemic. 
The first of these was the competency determination, as this year’s junior class has had no chance at all to take the MCAS. This change will allow the class of 2022 to achieve the required competency by passing the requisite classes. The juniors may choose to take the exam either this spring or next fall for a chance at the state scholarships. 
Member Marty West was concerned that juniors may miss a chance to see how they’re doing relative to the state standards, and thus wanted to be sure that they were informed of this opportunity. Associate Commissioner Rob Curtin responded that they could take the test for diagnostic as well as scholarship reasons.
Hills approved of their “very tailored approach,” noting that he will not support any change or limit to the MCAS “in this or any universe.”
Member Lombos said this was very different from her own view, saying “I’m in this job because I believe in change…I think that MCAS is something I’d like to discuss at the Board level.” She said given the anti-bias training the Board has gone through, “if we switch our thinking” about MCAS and alternative assessment through a lens of equity, “it’s much more nuanced than that.”
Rouhanifard said he thought this was the right decision given the limitations; he also said that he didn’t think there was as much distance between Lombos and Hills postions as portrayed. 
Student member Jasper Coughlin said that this is exactly the type of thing that shows students there are people caring about them, and said that there are very genuine concerns about MCAS that need to be discussed.
Member Amanda Fernández said this is a “now or never moment” and said that all should be interrogating and thinking about what this moment allows us to think and do differently.
The vote on the change in competency determination passed unanimously.

The next proposed change was with regard to the certificate of attainment for the class of 2021; certificates of attainment are granted to those who have achieved all local requirements for graduation, but have not passed the MCAS. It generally requires that those students granted it have tried to pass the MCAS at least three times; this would change that to one (none if they transferred to Massachusetts and had no chance to take it).
The measure passed.

The next item was to solicit public comment on a suspension of the accountability issuance for this year. This would hold in place the current accountability ratings; the list will be maintained for the purpose of being able to offering assistance and federal dollars. The federal accountability waiver was received April 6; this would be the state side equivalent. Moriarty said that he felt that accountability was an overdue conversation as well, for districts like Lawrence and Holyoke, where the state has been unable to take action due to the pandemic, we know they can’t change themselves because they never do.”
Peyster wanted to clarify that the parts of reporting will still be released publicly, to which Curtin agreed, saying that it is the algorithm that creates the accountability status that would not be updated.
The Board voted to send the proposed changes out for public comment.

The next item was a proposed change to the calculation of the lowest 10% of districts for the purposes of charter school applications. This solves for the problem created by not giving the MCAS last spring by keeping the current list in place by using the two most recent MCAS years. 
The Board voted to send this out for public comment.

Finally, the Board voted to send out for public comment an extension of two teacher licensure language changes. The first  allows for a teacher to teach up to 50% outside their content area (the general standard is 20%). Curtin noted that this had been 10% of teachers; this change last year raised this to 13%. The second extended the time a long-term sub may teach without the district needing a waiver. 

The Board then heard a budget update from CFO Bill Bell, who called the House Ways and Means budget a “strong continued investment in K-12 education.” He said it “continues” the Governor’s implementation of the Student Opportunity Act, though doing so at 1/6th or 17%, rather than 1/7th or 14% as the Governor’s did, for a change of $22M. It also recommends at $40M enrollment and transportation reserve account, which will call “upon us [DESE] to measure the impact and then award payments after we see what it is” due to enrollment losses or transportation costs incurred. On the federal level, there has been significant investment in K-12 education: $215M in ESSER I and $815M in ESSER II; the latest is $1.8B in ESSER III.They are in the  process of finalizing allocations for final one now, and they are looking to make award announcements by the end of the month, with access to funding by July 1. There is still over $100M of ESSER I available; the state is encouraging districts to spend FIFO (first in first out) method. A little over 100 districts have applied for ESSER II. Districts appear to be stepping back and trying to plan funding with their municipalities. 
The December budget had $24M in emergency assistance for non-public schools; there will be another round of this from ARP, another $24M, but DESE hasn’t gotten final guidance from federal government on this as yet. 
Member West said “with all of this additional federal funding in the system…[this is an] opportunity for DESE” to help “districts make good decisions with those funds.”

The meeting was adjourned. The Board next meets May 25.