There’s finally some hope for Lawrence’s perpetually troubled schools. The state, which pays close to 90 percent of school costs there, has taken over the district; Jeff Riley, who has proved his mettle in other education reform efforts, has been appointed to lead the turnaround; Riley has developed a bold plan that, in June, was approved by Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester.
That plan calls for two existing schools (one elementary, one middle) to be managed by successful charter school operators; for another charter operator to bring its tutoring program into two high schools; and for the creation of a new academy for at-risk students. School days would be longer, and principals would have broad powers to select their faculties.
So far, there has not been a huge disruption in the district. Sixteen teachers out of a total teacher workforce of more than 900 have been fired after performance evaluations, while another 18 resigned or retired after being notified of concerns about their performance. That’s hardly a purge of pedagogues.
Still, the Lawrence Teachers Union has grown increasingly hostile to the efforts. While it’s understandable that the union would voice concerns, it has done so in a bombastic way. Recently, LTU President Frank McLaughlin released to the Eagle-Tribune a letter he had written to Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, charging that Chester was engaged in “a wholesale assault on our collective bargaining rights.”
Chester rightly disputes that assessment. “I am not anti-union,” he says, “and this is not an assault on collective bargaining. This is, plain and simple, about what it is going to take to turn things around for the students of Lawrence.”
Some of those changes, by pushing decision-making down to the building level, should empower entrepreneurial teachers. Other changes, including merit pay and an end of “bumping” rights, where a more senior teacher can take the job of one with less seniority, are things that unions almost reflexively oppose.
But one important aspect of the education reform law of two years ago was a recognition that failing schools and failing districts require serious changes — and that, if those changes can’t be negotiated with unions, districts still must have the power to make them happen.
If ever there were a district that needed turning around, it’s long-troubled Lawrence. Still, some in the education reform community are worried that, with the local union up in arms — and Weingarten, according to union sources, calling administration leaders — the Patrick administration could go wobbly on reforms. The union deserves to have its concerns heard, but shouldn’t get a veto over the process. As the Legislature wisely recognized two years ago, when schools are failing, the concerns of unions have to take a back seat to concern for students.