A new legislative proposal would strip the Massachusetts education department of its power to take over underperforming school districts — a development partly fueled by last year’s power struggle over Boston Public Schools.
The “Thrive Act” takes aim at the most extreme intervention in the state’s school accountability system: school and district receiverships.
Under a receivership, a locally elected school board loses its decision-making power to an individual or board appointed by the state. Thrive Act supporters call the process punitive and undemocratic, arguing receiverships come largely at the expense of marginalized students and families.
“It’s always some of the poorest communities with the greatest number of students of color,” said Max Page, Massachusetts Teachers Association president.
Critics of the bill, though, say it would obliterate valuable leverage in ensuring the state’s most vulnerable students aren’t left to languish in struggling schools. BPS, for example, wouldn’t be reckoning with systemic changes to its transportation and special education systems had the district not been threatened with a takeover, they said.
“If you’re a parent of a BPS student and you have limited options, wouldn’t you want your superintendent or commissioner to take action to fix your son or daughter’s failing school?” said Ed Lambert, Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education executive director.
Mirror versions of the proposal, which also would end the use of MCAS scores in graduation requirements, have been filed in each legislative chamber.
Bills to scrap high-stakes testing are not new to Beacon Hill, but the Thrive Act stands out from previous legislation for making state receiverships a target. With Governor Maura Healey now in office, bill supporters say they see an opening, since she signaled a willingness to rethink the system while on the campaign trail.
Thousands of bills are filed each session, a small percentage of which ultimately prevail. But supporters feel hopeful.
“I think with the new administration, it’s a little more accepting. This is the time when we can get it through,” said Representative James Hawkins, an Attleboro Democrat and lead sponsor of the House bill.
Here’s what you need to know:
Local control goes back to the districts
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has had the power to take over local schools and districts since 2010.
Today, three districts remain under receivership: Lawrence, Holyoke, and Southbridge.
Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley served as the receiver for six years over Lawrence Public Schools. Lawrence initially was looked to as a national example for successful turnaround.
But state intervention has not led to sustained improvements in Lawrence or other districts, a 2022 Globe analysis found. Instead, for the districts it had taken over, the state failed to meet nearly all of its goals or make improvements on the MCAS, college attendance, or absenteeism.
The Thrive Act would require each district to resume local control within one year of the bill becoming law, but they would get state help in the transition.
Jonathan Guzman, a Lawrence School Committee member, was in high school when the state took over in 2011. He and his colleagues serve in an advisory role to a state receivership board, but the board may rebuff their guidance, Guzman said.
“It’s been 11 years and the city of Lawrence is under receivership still, and we’re still failing. Who is overseeing DESE on their failure?” he said.
Improvement matters as much as achievement
Moving forward, the state would have no power to take over districts writ-large, effectively eliminating the threat still looming over BPS.
That would give the district “breathing room” to focus on locally-driven school improvement strategies, such as community hub schools, said Boston Teachers Union President Jessica Tang.
The state would continue to identify its lowest performing schools (as required by federal law), but student growth would be given as much weight as achievement.
Any school showing “forward motion” could not be identified as low-performing, said Hawkins’s legislative director, Tara Major.
By eliminating receiverships, the Thrive Act also rids superintendents of the power to work outside teachers union contracts. For example, under current law, receivership allows a superintendent to change staffing, school hours, and compensation.
Union leaders argue the change would reduce turnover in high-need schools and districts.
Lambert disagreed, saying there is “never a good time to take away tools that can benefit students.”
Coursework over MCAS scores
Under the Thrive Act, MCAS testing would continue, but scores would no longer be used as a graduation requirement. Instead, diplomas would be issued to any student who demonstrates skill “mastery” by “satisfactorily completing coursework.”
Supporters say the change would remove a barrier to economic opportunity faced by those who leave high school with a certificate of attendance, rather than a diploma — an outcome most often affecting students of color, from low-income households or with disabilities.
What mastery looks like would be left up to each of the state’s more than 300 school districts, according to the bill.
Mary Tamer, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, said such a move would “completely diminish” the value of a Massachusetts diploma.
New commission to study alternatives
The Thrive Act would create a new 24-member commission to study a “more authentic and accurate system for assessing students, schools, and school districts.”
Members of the commission would include legislative representatives, educator groups, and advocacy organizations. The group would be required to consider other measurements than standardized test scores, including projects and portfolios.
Families want to be involved in improving their children’s schools, but the current system is “arbitrary and unwelcoming,” especially for caregivers struggling to provide basic needs, said Vatsady Sivongxay, the executive director for the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance, one of the groups given a seat on the proposed commission.
Domingo Morel, author of the 2018 book, “Takeover: Race, Education, and American Democracy,” called the Thrive Act the most “comprehensive” and “inclusive” turnaround legislation he’s seen.
“To recognize the local community as a strength rather than a hindrance or an obstacle is a step in the right direction,” he said.
Mandy McLaren can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @mandy_mclaren.