Feb. 13, 2003
Can you channel the hydra that controls public education in Massachusetts? Imagine that you speak for the superintendents, the school committees, the boards of education, the teachers unions -- the Blob, as former Education Secretary William Bennett once styled it. You are presented with the following scenarios. How do you respond?
Scenario 1: An urban public school is so badly run that it has been classified by the state as "underperforming." By law, parents whose children attend failing schools are entitled to transfer them to a better one. The mother of one such child seeks help in arranging a transfer. What do you do?
Answer: You hinder her in every way possible.
Scenario 2: A group of suburban black parents are pleased with the local elementary school. It is as good as the town's other elementary schools, and the parents don't mind that most of its students aren't white. (For many, in fact, it's an added attraction.) True, the schools lack superficial racial diversity. But the kids are learning, they're close to home, and their parents are content. What is your reaction?
Answer: You pursue diversity -- at any cost.
Scenario 3: A handful of relatively new public schools are winning rave reviews. They cost less to run than the older public schools yet their students' performance tends to be better. These innovative schools are so popular with the public that there are long waiting lists of students waiting for a space to open up. Many parents wish there were more of them. What is your view?
Answer: You denounce the new schools and try to shut them down.
Unfortunately, these are not hypothetical cases.
The mother wanting to transfer her son out of a lousy school is Maria Fenton of Dorchester, whose story was told by Megan Tench in The Boston Globe last week. Fenton's son Michael attends one of the 44 Boston public schools recently designated "underperforming." Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act enacted last year, that gives her the right to transfer Michael to a better school. But the Blob is doing its best to make that impossible.
The letter telling her that Michael's school was failing gave her just four days to select a different one. But when she called the school to ask what her choices were, no one could tell her. She asked for the number to the Boston School Department and was told she couldn't have it. So she got the number on her own, then called the superintendent's office seeking information. Her messages were never returned. She tried to get a list of Boston's high-performing schools, but was told no such list exists. When she eventually did come up with the name of a good school, she was informed no seats were available.
Unlike Fenton, the parents in Scenario 2 want their kids to stay right where they are: in the Tucker School, one of four primary schools in suburban Milton, Mass., and the only one with a nonwhite majority. Blacks make up just 10 percent of Milton's population, but they are concentrated on the town's west side, where Tucker is located.
As the Globe's Dan De Leo noted in a lucid story on Saturday, everyone agrees that the four schools are equally good; there is no suggestion that Tucker's black majority is in any way the result of discrimination. Many black parents say they like the fact that their kids are in a school with lots of other black kids. Yet because Massachusetts law forbids racial "imbalance," Milton now finds itself forced to "desegregate" -- i.e., to do away with neighborhood schooling, shuffle the children by color, and ensure that blacks are a minority in every school in town. And the Blob, rather than fighting to repeal a law that compels such an obnoxious result, is operating full tilt to implement it.
But the damage inflicted in Scenarios 1 and 2 is nothing compared with Scenario 3: the Blob's assault on charter schools.
Massachusetts has only 39 of these independent, entrepreneurial, union-free schools; the oldest is just eight years old. By law, they receive less government money than regular public schools, yet they rank high in student performance and parent satisfaction.
Two-thirds of charter classes, for example, outperformed their regular-school counterparts on the 2002 MCAS test. Five of Boston's 10 top-scoring high schools (and four of the top 10 middle schools) are charters. It is not surprising that charter-school parents give their kids' education high marks. And it is equally unsurprising that the waiting list of children hoping to enroll in a charter is 13,000 names long.
But if the Blob gets its way, those 13,000 kids will never be allowed to experience the innovation and motivation of a charter-school education. The powerful Massachusetts Teachers Association, which resents any competition from schools it doesn't control, has launched a campaign to bar the granting of new charters and to choke off the funding on which existing charters depend.
The stakes in this fight are great. It is imperative that charter schools be protected. For if the MTA and the rest of the Blob succeed in strangling them, the dream of education reform in Massachusetts will be dead forever.