Public Policy Updates: March Board of Ed

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education met in Malden for their regular meeting on March 26, 2019. The agenda is here; the video of the meeting is here. 

The major news of the meeting was the announcement by Board Chair Paul Sagan that he would be completing his term at the close of the meeting. Secretary James Peyser then announced that Governor Charles Baker would be appointing current member Katherine Craven as the new Chair of the Board, and he would be appointing Matthew Hills, former member of the Newton School Committee, to the empty seat on the Board. Under Massachusetts General Law chapter 15, section 1E, the appointment of the chair is under the purview of the Governor. 


 Public comment included testimony from Executive Director Salah Khelfaoui of Greenfield Virtual Charter regarding the recommendation of renewal of that school; a parent concerned about the use of wifi in schools and the Department's role in that; and testimony from the Department's Racial Imbalance Council, urging support for the Promise Act to "perhaps equalize educational opportunities."

The Board next hear from a panel on family engagement. This involved a discussion of multi-agency, multi-stakeholder work since September of 2017 for a pre-natal through post-secondary family engagement framework built around the principles of equity and cultural responsiveness. The state also has received a five year $4.6M grant for a statewide family engagement center, which will allow the Department as part of the work to hire a family engagement specialist to work with districts on building family engagement, starting with pilots in Lawrence and in New Bedford. The nine week Family Institute for Success, currently running in Lawrence and New Bedford also spoke of their work with families around a research-based, culturally responsive program for and with families. Parents have learned to navigate the school system, to push their children even more. 

 The Board next received an update from the receivers on the three receivership districts. John Connolly, the chair of the Lawrence receivership board, said the four Lawrence members on the board gave the city "a strong voice," one which it later emerged included a single Lawrence Public Schools parent. He thanked the Department for their work with the receivership board on professional development, speaking of their learning on evaluating the superintendent and their recent work on budget. The board meets monthly but is in "daily contact" with the superintendent. Superintendent Cynthia Paris spoke of her 100 day listening tour in the district, where she asked for input on three questions: what's working? what needs attention? what are your expectations of me? Among the things most stressed by the community was the continued need for biliterate and bicultural teachers. Paris said that the work towards a new turnaround plan would be forthcoming, with community input as needed through stakeholder groups.
The receiver of Holyoke Steve Zrike started by highlighting growing programs in early college and dual enrollment. He noted the growing number of students in early childhood education, saying that the ultimate goal is to have preschool for all four year olds in the district, which currently serves approximately 40% of such students. There were encouraging reports from the dual language programs, now operating at two elementary schools with a lengthy waiting list. The district is in the early stages of re-envisioning middle school, as well as planning for a significant middle school project of two buildings, one which Member Michael Moriarty noted may not yield the actual level of reimbursements due to the system under which new schools are built. Zrike spoke of the influx of families from Puerto Rico, now largely dispersed, as being a growing experience for the district, one which tested its flexibility. 
Southbridge receiver Jeffrey Villar spoke of himself as among the longest serving of Southbridge's leaders; he is the eleventh leader of the Southbridge public schools in ten years. There has also been significant turnover among the administrative staff, the building leadership, and teaching; he has hired 35% of the current teaching staff since July. He also came to a district that was running a $3.1M deficit for FY19; he has narrowed that to $700K for FY20, in part due to increased Chapter 70 aid. The district is doing work on climate and culture with UConn, has a new student information system and disciplinary tracking, and is implementing use of MUNIS in budgetary management.

Greenfield Virtual Charter's move off of probation was taken up next. It was explained that Greenfield Virtual Charter's probationary status, when reflected alongside the status of the state's only othervirtual charter, TEC Academy, was a questioning of timing rather than a distinction between them. As the next step for a school on probation is possible closure, the Department, feeling that was not accurate, has moved Greenfield Virtual Charter off such a status. The plan is for the Department to do further work to capture what can be measured in virtual schools.

The Board received an update on the plan for 10th grade MCAS in ELA and math. The scores will be "equipercentile linked" (set equivalent) to the previous MCAS. Those will then be validated by teachers. The Department will identify the cut scores, and they will verify an interim standard for competency determination, but the Department will not set a new standard this summer. The Board voted in favor of using the same descriptors (Exceeding Expectations, Meeting Expectations, Partially Meeting Expectations, and Not Meeting Expectations) as have been used in earlier grades.

The Board then received from Deputy Commissioner Jeff Wulfson a review of how charter schools are funded, which also explored questions of district impact; that presentation can viewed from the beginning here. This noted that charter schools were among programs for which districts pay some form of tuition for students to attend schools outside of district schools. Charter funding is predicated on the idea that the amount the home district would spend on students; school choice funding of $5000/pupil assumes that receiving districts have already extant empty seats, and thus fundings only a marginal cost. There is an annual calculation of charter "surplus" funding, which would require such funding be returned based on a calculation agreed upon with the state auditor's office; such has never been found to happen. The funding of charter schools is based on actual enrollment of the actual students attending, updated quarterly; funding above foundation is at the same rate as students in district. Funding of that is divided as it is for in district students, with local taxpayers effectively bearing part of the cost of charter students as they do for district students. The charter tuition reimbursement was 100/60/40 of increases in tuition; "in a tough budget year" that shifted to 100/25/25/25/25/25, and Governor Baker's proposed House 70 would shift it back, while also concentrating funding on districts with actual sustained increases in enrollment. Those reimbursements can be found on municipal and regional cherry sheets which report state aid, all of which are co-mingled. Chair Sagan argued that districts should be "held accountable" for use of the charter reimbursement towards the lost marginal costs, which Deputy Commissioner Wulfson noted would be impossible from an accounting standard.
The presentation then explored how to define impact on sending districts, what are the challenges in defining, and how much would be too much impact. The first perspective is that any funding that is allocated to only particular students necessarily isn't impacted to larger group of students. In terms of impact, one can ask first of level services benchmark--can district respond to loss of enrollment with offset savings?--and of an opportunity costs benchmark--what would district do with higher funding level?--with the second being more difficult to define. Potential marginal savings depends on how many students/grades/schools are impacted; “the greater the enrollment loss, the more opportunities to achieve offset savings” ironically. Also to be considered is overall enrollment patterns, overall district enrollment and chapter 70, current building utilitization and impact on capital projects, and future municipal appropriations. There is also the question of impact on other municipal departments, even if schools remain unharmed, as it appears has happened at times in Boston. The Department has--and continues to recommend to the Board--not established or observed a lower cap on charter increases. The districts that are not open to charter expansion are on slide 17 of the presentation. The defeat of Question 2 did not change the system of charter cap at all, but defeated a proposed change. The legal authority is "questionable given the clear statutory language" and there is difficulty in measuring impact. Member Mary Ann Stewart said she would like to consider regulatory change to consider impacts; Member James Morton agreed, arguing that it wasn't about taking choices away from those who had it, but rather standing for those who did not. Member Michael Moriarty said this was a hard choice, while Morton argued that the Board has a responsibility to stand for those who lack agency.

Finally, the Board took up proposed modifications to the school and district accountability system. The Department intends at this year to have only minimum changes to allow for a second year of data and a consistency to the system for better understanding and as grade ten MCAS transitions. The proposed changes are as follows:

  • calculate participation rates by subgroup level rather than by subgroup by test (this will allow for a larger size and "a much fairer way to do it")
  • report progress towards targets in three, updated from two, categories, with specification for district that are partially meeting targets and improving (that will then be meeting targets, partially meeting targets, and not meeting targets, with the middle categorization noting progress)
  • use two years of data, as the state accummulates additional data
  • expand the advanced coursework list at the high school and update it annually

These proposed change will be sent out to public comment next month, and they will be brought back for a vote of the Board in June.

At the adjourment of the meeting, Chair Paul Sagan handed the gavel to Member Katherine Craven, who will take the chair at the meeting in April.