Public Policy Updates: November Board of Education

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education met on Tuesday, November 28. The agenda is posted here. 

The meeting opened with updates from Acting Commissioner Wulfson, who spoke of the recently signed LOOK bill on bilingual education. He commented that it was "designed to provide additional flexibility for English language learners," and he told the Board that they would receive a complete update at their December meeting. He also spoke of the results of the first school climate survey, which students took after completing the MCAS this past year. He said it was a "first attempt to quantify some qualitative measures." He noted that the influx of students coming from Puerto Rico not only has continues, but appears to have picked up, with the state having passed 1400 new students last week; the state continues to monitor that and is discussing what is to be done with and for districts both this year and next. Finally, he warmly praised East Boston's McKay School, which he recently visited and was among the schools positively profiled in a recent Boston Globe article.

Secretary Peyser gave a brief update on the administration's interagency opioid work.

Public comments included opposition to wireless internet access and testimony from the head of the two virtual schools in support of the proposed tuition increase (see below).

Several members of the group that revised the social studies standards spoke; Kerry Dunne of the Weston Public Schools commented on "the sad fact that history and social studies have not been a priority for many years," asking that the Commissioner make a strong statement on the need for social studies to be taught to students daily by an appropriately certified teacher. She also asked for support from the Department in implementation. Rashaun Martin of the Haverhill Public Schools, speaking of the group's work, said, "What we have done is made every attempt to shift the focus from an outdated and overrated attachement to the study of a laundry list of dates and dead guys to a more robust, thematic, topic-based experience of our nation's story and the global world in which we live." 

Mohawk Regional superintendent Michael Buoniconti spoke in opposition to the renewal of the Four River Charter School, speaking of the financial pressure faced by his small rural district from that school.

National and Massachusetts Teacher of the Year Sydney Chaffee addressed the Board about her experiences in that role. She took her theme from Leonardo da Vinci, in speaking of human flight: "The spirit of the bird must be counterfeited by the spirit of man." She spoke of the importance, in education, of trying, but that "to try means to possibly fail." She referenced a former student with whom she had tried who now teaches, as well. "Education is a tool for social justice," she said. She spoke of the "fundamental disconnect" between policy makers and practitioners and asked how we restore those conversations and restore the nuance in them. "How will you put out the call for teachers to talk to you?" she asked the Board. 

Chair Paul Sagan updated the Board on the search for a new Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education. The preliminary screening committee met for the first time this week. Applications are due December 15; the screening committee will meet again (in executive session) on December 18. It is expected that they will interview some that have applied, then meet again in early January to vote on finalists to send to the full Board. The Board has set aside the days of January 17 and 18 to interview those finalists. The Board plans to vote on a new Commissioner at their regular January meeting on the 23rd. Sagan quipped that no one should plan on that being a short meeting.

The Board then heard an update on the receivership in the Lawrence Public Schools. As was announced earlier this month, the current receiver Jeffrey Riley will resign at the end of this school year; Acting Commissioner Wulfson has announced that he will appoint a board as the receiver, who will in turn appoint a new superintendent. The superintendent will report to the board; the receivership board will report to the Commissioner. Riley reported on the improved test data, on the improved graduation rate--the dropout rate has been cut in half, and on the importance of the enriched curriculum. "We've gone too far in the world of education in just assessing students by a test," he said. He commented that possibly the most important thing they had done was invest in fixing buildings, as that generated parent buy-in. Numerous times he said that his role was " a facilitator," that it was "a home-grown investment." Responding to questions, he said that one lesson learned was "the strength of our district is our teachers" who need to be trusted and need to be heard. Speaking of third grade literacy, he also stressed the need for respecting the time it takes to learn a new language. Looking ahead, he stressed the importance of the road map laid out in special education, and of the need for the state to fix the foundation budget formula and for the city also to make a greater investment in education. "It is incumbent on this Board" to work on the foundation budget issue; "there is nowhere left to cut," he said. He closed by saying that he looked forward to the day the schools would be returned to local authority. 

Chair Sagan then asked the Acting Commissioner about the move towards shared responsibility. Wulfson began by commenting that some of the school committee members had been re-elected in the recent election; Sagan responded, "I don't know how that's possible after what they did." Wulfson said that he plans to engage in a conversation if that (an elected school committee) "is the best structure of long-term governance." Wulfson remarked that in New Bedford, "we saw a respected superintendent" stepping down as a result of the election outcome. Asked by member West of his opinion on future governance, Riley said, "I don't think anything should be off the table." Member McKenna spoke of Connecticut's Commissioner's districts, run entirely by an appointed board, half state appointed, half locally appointed.

The budget update opened with the foundation budget; member Craven said, "It's so huge that I tend to gloss over it." Among the priorities put forward by the Board for FY19 is an emphasis on the state fulfilling the commitments it has made. Member Craven, who chairs the budget subcommittee, specifically mentioned circuit breaker and regional transportation. The Board also prioritized early literacy, civics, breakfast, and gifted students. Member McKenna asked about the recently signed LOOK bill; Wulfson responded that regulations would be forthcoming. He also commented that rural districts with falling enrollments would not be helped signficantly by the implementation of the Foundation Budget Review Commission's recommendations; we "haven't quite figured out the solution to the problems they're facing." He also reiterated the commitment to districts on incoming students from Puerto Rico, to "make sure that districts aren't financially disaffected by that."

The Board voted to send to public comment a proposed amendment to 603 CMR 30.00 on the competency determination for graduation for the classes of 2021 and 2022 (that is, this year's freshmen and eighth grade classes). This would set an interim passing standard on the new MCAS exam equivalent to the passing level of the current exam, with the expectation that the bar would be raised in subsequent years. 

The Board also voted to solicit public comment on a proposed change to 603 CMR 28.10 to align current special education regulation with foster care requirements under ESSA. It is also intended to create simplicity for those who live in one district and attend in another.

The Board had an initial discussion on a proposal to raise the tuition per pupil for virtual schools from the school choice amount of $5000 to $8190, intended to be approximately the average per pupil foundation amount, minus a $95 overhead. The two virtual schools have requested this. Note that this tuition does come from district foundation aid. They will vote on this proposal in December.

Finally, the Board received an update on the changes in state standards. They received an initial report on the proposed updates to the history and social studies standards. They will vote to send those to public comment in January. Those changes include a dedicated 8th grade full-year civics class, to include the philosophical foundations of the U.S. government system, the Constitution and amendments, rights and responsibilities of citizens, and state and local government. There also is a 12th grade U.S. Government and Politics course. There is a through line from early grades through high school on every day democracy in the classroom through to larger and larger groups in society. Study is intended to focus on research, process, analysis, and evaluation of credibility of sources. Asked about state assessment, Wulfson replied that it was "a chance to intergrate some new models" of assessment. The Board was also told that both arts and health standards, last updated in 1999, were to be updated in the coming year, with the arts review beginning in January and health coming a few months after. 

The Board next meets on December 19.