Public Policy Updates: May 2020 Board of Ed

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education met remotely on Tuesday, May 26, 2020, for a rare afternoon meeting. The agenda can be found online here, video of the meeting here.

Chair Katherine Craven opened the meeting by speaking of the value of being as transparent as possible during this time, as they make plans for the nearly one million children impacted by the school closure. She spoke of her appreciation for those at the Department and in districts and of families, and said that the Department would share plans as soon as they are developed.


She then asked members Amanda Fernández and James Morton to share updates from the subcommittees they chair, respectively Teacher Diversity and the Commissioner’s performance. Fernández said the Department is focusing on a scholarship program that would remove some of the barriers that traditionally have been a barrier to potential teachers of color joining the workforce. Morton said that his subcommittee has reviewed and updated the criteria, solicited the Commissioner’s self-evaluation, and requested stakeholder feedback. They are reviewing what they have receieved, and they will be ready to report at the June meeting.

During public comment, several parents and others spoke to a “competency-based system” of learning based on statewide assessments “pegged to state and industry curated learning grids,” doing away with aged-based classrooms, and making “gifted education available for all students.”
Boston Public School teachers and parents spoke noted that students have been assessed during the pandemic, despite some still not having laptops. “It is surely a red flag to be doing this now,” they said. They asked that parents and students be invited to the table “because our voice counts.” A mother asked what she could say to her first grader when she asked why her school didn’t have the programs she saw other schools having, saying “we want more funds for the Blackstone, not state intervention.” 
Chair Craven thanked those who spoke, commenting that it was great for the Board to be hearing from those who can’t usually travel to Malden to testify.

The Commissioner then addressed his update to the Board. Of the more than 40 member working group that has been working on reopening, he said the following: 

And I want to be clear: we are working to have schools up and running in the fall, with appropriate safety protocols…We hope to have some summer programming as well.

The Department will send out guidance for the summer by the first week of June, for next year by mid-June.
The Commissioner spoke of ongoing updates going out to districts, on the comptency determination, on parent letters, on special education. The Department has sent out a survey to districts on remote learning; they are still evaluating the results of that. There have been some question regarding if late agreements with unions made the start of remote learning later for some districts; as yet, they do not know that.
The Request for Proposals for the CARES Act are now available to districts; those requesting FY20 funding have a deadline of June 15; those requesting FY21 funding have a deadline of July 1. Student Opportunity Act plans now have a deadline of June 19, which may move again if conditions warrant, particularly as there is as yet no budget. 


Takeru Nagayoshi, current “and longest serving” Teacher of the Year, who is an English teacher in New Bedford, next spoke (he is long serving because the Department has as yet not been able to name the next one, due to the pandemic), focusing in particular on the teacher experience of remote instruction. He noted that he and his colleagues are handling instruction differently; some are having live classes online, some post work online, some have online check-ins or office hours. All are having to juggle personal and professional life in new ways. He said of his own classes, he sees between 65 and 85% daily participation; over a week, he has 90% of students participate at least once. He noted that his district struggled with attendance pre-pandemic, and that finding students was a struggle. This is true not only of New Bedford but nationally. Many students are working in essential jobs, some for longer hours now; many are caring for younger siblings; some are struggling with the the lack of structure. All of the struggles of this time disproportionately impact low income communities disproportionately. He asked for support for teachers, but also for parents and for students. All are navigating this for the first time. A few discussions he proposed as needed: what is successful right now that can be carried forward? How do we best navigate the tension between equity and accountability? He also noted that we need to not think of students as “digital natives,” but rather as “cell phone natives,” and recognize that many need support at navigating a new interface. He urged that districts and schools “really connect” with families.

The Board next took up the next piece of the competency determination with MCAS: due to schools being closed this spring, students who generally would have taken their science MCAS towards the end of their relevant course were unable to do so. As a result, the Commissioner recommends that the Board parallel the competency determination for the classes of 2021, 2022, 2023 with the decision made for this year’s seniors on MCAS: that passage of a relevant course will count as the competency determination.”While this may seem like an extraordinary step to take, these are extraordinary times, and we must, in my opinion, make decisions accordingly,” he said. This will also still count for relevant scholarships.
Member Marty West agreed that circumstances were extraordinary, wishing to stress that this did not change the Departments overall “theory of action” that coursework must have a state audit. Member Paymon Rouhanifard called his “more of a vote of acquiescence rather than approval.” The item passed unanimously.

The Board next took up a budget update with CFO Bill Bell, who said “we don’t have any magic answers” and it “very difficult to finalize a local budget without a sense of…what level of state commitment” there will be, which there is not yet. The Commissioner added that the Governor put out his budget pre-coronavirus; both House and Senate said they had to go back to the drawing board, and now Beacon Hill still trying to figure out how much tax revenue is coming in. Secretary James Peyser said that leadership is looking at the same data we are, but it’s still in the early stages, and they are “taking it one day at a time.” Bell added that it is looking like the state is going to roll into FY21 on a one twelfth budgetary basis. Member Morton asked if there was a role for advocacy from the Board; Peyser, while saying there’s “always of value for constituency and stakeholders to make their voices heard,” he believes that K-12 education is at the top of everyone’s list. Member Hills said his assumption is, given all the uncertainty, “it’s probably beyond crazy for individual districts to think there’s going to be an increase” over next year and “a near miracle if it stays flat,” asking Bell if that was accurate. Bell, noting that he didn’t want to get beyond his own authorities, said, “One thing we know is that Chapter 70 will increase…there will be an amount of funding to cover the constitutional aid value.” But is the Governor’s number sustainable? “I don’t know.” He noted that Legislature did pass SOA unanimously, and the Governor signed it, so”the commitment’s there; it’s the reality” is the question. 

The Board next meets on June 30.