Public Policy Updates: Joint Committee on Education Hearings

The Joint Committee on Education has held hearings this month regarding bills filed this Legislative session, several of which are of interest to members. 

The hearing on Tuesday, September 5 opened with testimony from Secretary of Education James Peyser in support of H.304 and S.279. These parallel bills are those described as "empowerment zone" bills, often citing Springfield's Empowerment Zone as a example. Peyser, representing the Baker administration, described these as promoting an "innovative approach to district governance" and a means to "unlock the potential of every educator." Under questioning from Senator Patricia Jehlen, Peyser conceded "we're in early days" in terms of outcomes of this model, but he added that "reception has been really remarkably positive."

Senator Lesser then testified in support of his bill, joined by Springfield Superintendent Daniel Warwick and others from Springfield. Lesser spoke of the "trauma" of schools put under state receivership, citing Holyoke as an example; he described his bill as a way for districts to avoid such an outcome. Warwick and others spoke specifically of the experiences of Springfield in their zone.

New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell also called for passage of the bill, citing his districts experience in setting up a zone in New Bedford that was then rejected by the teachers' union. He felt the district should be empowered to set it up even with such a rejection.

Joint testimony by the teachers' unions featured Springfield Education Association President Maureen Colgan-Posner, who contrasted the work being done in Springfield with the language of the bill. In particular, Colgan-Posner pointed out the lack of local voice in the structure set up within the bills. Rep. Alice Peisch, who jointly chairs the committee and is lead sponsor of the House bill, responded that she appreciated the comments made, remarking that she knows of no bill that emerges from the legislative process as originally filed.

Others testifying remarked, as MASC Executive Director Glenn Koocher did in the Boston Herald, that this was an attempt by those who had lost in last year's charter school vote to move forward under other cover. While MASC did not testify, MASC has offered testimony calling those points into question.

Testimony on other bills at the hearing included that of Westwood School Committee member Tony Mullin, testifying in support of later school start times.

Much of the attention during the hearing on Tuesday, September 12 focused on S.308, sponsored by Senator Michael Rush and supported by the Mass Teachers Association. This is something of an omnibus bill, combining implementation of the Foundation Budget Review Commission recommendations with legislation on recess, a testing freeze, and more. MASC offered testimony on H.324, offered by Represenative Steven Ultrino, which would ensure that a school committee member serves on the Massachusetts Board of Education. The testimony read, in part: "In addition to their knowledge and understanding of local concerns and the impact of state policy on individual schools and districts, school committee members represent the very basic element of American democracy – in fact several of you know this from your own service on a school committee – and members bring to the table both knowledge of law and regulation, but also an appreciation of the values and priorities of municipalities and regions."

We will update members as the Joint Committee takes action on these bills.