Public Policy Updates: October 2021 Board of Ed

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education held their regular October meeting on Tuesday, October 19 at 9 am. The agenda can be found online here; the video of the meeting is online here.

The meeting opened with public comment, in opening which Chair Katherine Craven noted that interruptions would not be tolerated; people would be given a single warning if they were disruptive, and then they would have to leave. The first comment spoke of the missed opportunity in the Commissioner’s goals to push forward gifted and talented learning; real equity, it was said comes from “ respecting the unique needs of each child.” This was, it was said, 30 years of disrespect for advanced children.

There were a number of members of the public who spoke on the Boston Public Schools. The first was a Boston Public Schools student, who stated that receivership isn’t the answer, and that MCAS shouldn’t be the measurement of competency. The “real and sustainable change” needed would include professional development, sufficient supplies, a manageable workload, and more supports for students; “give us the resources, not receivership,” she said.

Ruby Reyes of the Boston Educational Justice Alliance said she was at the meeting to address “the ongoing bullying of the Boston Public Schools” regarding receivership. She noted the “systemic disarray” of receivership across the state; all districts and schools under receivership were so designated between 2011-14, so the state has had time to provide support and improvements.  The state’s record of receivership, she said, “is chronically underperforming.” She noted the history in the removal of local authority from cities across the country when Black communities come to leadership, and noted that this discussion is coming just as Boston will vote this fall on having an elected school committee. She said, “receivership is a form of institutionalized racism.”
The Boston Public School parent who spoke next picked up this point, that the Boston School Committee had ceased to be an elected one just as communities of color were gaining power, and it is no coincidence that this conversation is being had now. She noted that Lawrence makes it clear what happens when those voices are left out, “receivership is not the answer,” she said. DESE is not providing support that is needed, which is to
uplift community voices, to cultivate trust, and to close achievement gaps.

An organizer with the Boston Teachers Union then read a statement from an organizer in Lawrence “to call into question the efficacy of receivership in Lawrence.” The writer said, most often, “as I learned at Harvard,” receiverships don’t do what they’re set out to do. Yesterday, the community gathered “in collective rage.” DESE’s presence was requested at the meeting, but did not attend; “what exactly is DESE accomplishing with this experiment?” The varied magnitudes of violence and compounded trauma from last year have gone unaddressed. The “receivership since 2011 has failed to respond to students social and emotional needs,” but the “racist and classist receivership law” rests power in hands of Commissioner Riley.

Finally, Lew Finfer of the Mass Communities Action Network expressed the alarm of the Alliance for Vocational Technical Education at the revision to admissions that Monty Tech passed last week. DESE can intervene when there is non-compliance with the new policy; Finfer asked, “Isn’t this non-compliance?” Students are still ranked in four realms; it doesn’t, Finfer said, align with the spirit of the regulation passed. He asked that DESE request no ranking inn admission unless required for participation; intervene now if there is this ranking; and ask Board to spend time in November on implementation of this new regulation.

Chair Craven appointed members to the budget committee: Hills, Moriarty, Stewart, Carris Livingston; and to the educator diversity committee: Fernández, Lombos, Rouhanifard, Stewart.

Secretary Jim Peyser noted that it’s Massachusetts STEM week, and the theme is “see yourself in STEM.”

Commissioner Riley introduced Regina Robinson, who has now joined the Department as Deputy Commissioner charged with “Special Services, Strategic Transformation, Problem Resolution, Curriculum and Instruction, Educator Effectiveness.”

Member Michael Moriarty briefly inquired about the report on ventilation improvements the Commissioner had shared.

The 2022 Mass Teacher of the Year Marta García of the Salem Public Schools then spoke. She said that her accent was her superpower, that it spoke of her identity, and of her first language. She said she wanted to be sure to use her platform to call to their attention the complication masks put on some second lanuage learners. She said her students “have taught me more than I can say,” like the student who brought her new kitten to school because she didn’t have the words in English to tell us about it, and the student who talked about it being dark and cold in the desert and spoke of the border patrol. She emphasized the importance of culturally responsive practices and assessments.

The Commissioner then spoke of the National Guard now filling in for testing in schools; in response to a question from Member Matt Hills, he explained that this would be similar to the busing effort, in which the Guard members were there to fill in until the vendors could train more staff. He expects that “test and stay” will be cited as a national model. He said that so far the Department has received nine requests from districts that have had schools hit the state parameter for mask removal; it remains, he stressed, a local decision, which may incorporate other data points besides vaccination of students and staff. He said a decision would be made by early next week as to if the mandate would again continue. He said he had visited Lawrence last and this week, and the Department will “continue to support administration as they enact a plan to strengthen the school and give students what they need.”

Student member Eleni Carris Livingston asks about masks with clear shields being provided.
Member Paymon Rouhanifard said that he agreed that the admission requirement spoken of during public comment breaks spirit of law in new regs. Riley responded that the Department was in process in reviewing this particular case and others. Craven asked, “but it’s fair to say the Department was aware of this before this morning?” Riley: “we had heard about it.”

Member Darlene Lombos asked for more information about the receivership process.

The Commissioner then briefly spoke of his goals, which he divided into “recovery” and “reimagine.”
In brief, the “recovery” goals are:

    • COVID-19 supports to districts and schools
    • Implementation of the Acceleration Roadmap
    • Accelerated learning opportunities
    • ESSER funding and guidance to districts and schools
    • Improved IEP guidance to support students with disabilities
    • Improved resources for supporting English learners
    • Early literacy
    • Districts requiring assistance

And in brief, the “reimagine” goals are:

    • Kaleidoscope Collective for Learning
    • Innovative science assessment
    • Early college
    • Diversifying the educator workforce
    • Career/vocational technical education (CVTE) admissions
    • Action-oriented research for educational equity
    • Implementation of DESE’s racial equity decision-making tool

Vice-Chair James Morton asked where the changes in assessment were to be found here. Riley agreed they need to be more engaging, more collaborative, more reflective of outside of school, and he said more would be coming on that. Moriarty commented that he was “delighted” to see early literacy included. Hills asked if the state would be using more than MCAS to assess literacy progress; Riley said other assessments were an option. Stewart said she didn’t want to see the Department back off on the equity push in the vocational school regulations. Peyser argued that the admission policy that had been questioned during public comment was not out of line with the regulations. Stewart disagreed. Moriarty said that they shouldn’t discuss the school without the school having representation there.

The budget subcommittee will meet prior to the November meeting of the Board, with Hills, as chair of the budget subcommittee, noting that this is about the Department’s budget.

DESE CFO Bill Bell said the Department has begun the process that leads to the FY23 budget, starting with a level service “maintenance” budget, with additions and subtractions reflecting priorities of leadership. Bell noted that there is a “significant amount of funding” that the Department is managing, particularly looking at the ESSER funding. They’re ensuring that districts understand the requirements the federal goverment has for this funding. This also includes some work with private schools, as they also are receving federal funding. For FY23, they’ll be working with the Board on priorities, with recommendations going to the Governor’s office just before Christmas.

Finally, Mystic Valley Charter School came before the Board to request a waiver to the state regulation requiring that all charter schools be evaluated by the same criteria. The school is also suing the Department. Their attorney spoke at length not only about the waiver, but about what he argued was effectively collusion between critics of the school, the Department, the Attorney General’s office, and others in “targeting” the school. He charged misconduct by Department officials in working with these others, saying that the critics had worked “to create a fictitious, scandal-like atmosphere” around the school. The director of the school cited the school’s MCAS scores and its waitlist, saying that the school was very popular in its sending communities.

When called forward, Department staff noted that much of the prior presentation was about the litigation rather than the waiver. They noted that the Commissioner recommended against the waiver, as it was, he felt, unneeded. In response to a question from Hills, it was noted that there are 78 charter schools in Massachusetts, and that this would put Mystic Valley Charter alone under a different set of evaluation criteria. There are renewals of charters that happen with conditions; there is not another case such as this one. Peyser noted that any question of the review of the charter was at this point theoretically, as the school’s charter is not up for renewal until 2023. Morton commented “we have standards that have been adopted and approved” and they are seeking a different set of standards. Rouhanifard joked as sidebar that this could be a Supreme Court case and said he was interested in that aspect. After the school’s lawyer came back up, Craven responded that decision before the Board is if there is a conflict or there is not; other matters were not part of this decision.

Member Carris Livingston asked for the definition of “American culture” that Mystic Valley uses.

The director said it goes back to the foundation documents of the country: “all of these core traits that form the traits of our character education program”…helping our students understand “that we share far more than what might divide us.”

The Board asked for clarification on what would go into the record, at which their legal counsel noted that the motion as worded was the Commissioner’s recommendation.

The denial of the waiver passed.

The Board moved to executive session to discuss the lawsuit.