Opinion

SCOT LEHIGH

Springfield’s ed zone shows the way forward

Springfield, MA - 01/12/17 - Students react to a vinegar and baking soda volcano in Zoe Pierce's sixth grade science class at the Impact School in Springfield. There was no finger pointing here two years ago when state education officials threatened to take over three chronically low-achieving middle schools. Administrators and teachers alike knew students were not being well served and the schools needed to change. But Springfield officials from the mayor to the superintendent to the teachers union president did not welcome receivership. Instead, working with state officials, they crafted a first-of-its-kind plan for a Massachusetts school system, spinning off the middle schools into what effectively is their own miniature school system. Now that effort, dubbed locally as the Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership, is gaining attention from state leaders and local educators across the state as a fresh way to potentially turn around the most persistently failing schools. (Lane Turner/Globe Staff) Reporter: (James Vaznis) Topic: (16springfield)
Lane Turner/Globe Staff/File 2017
Students reacted to a vinegar and baking soda volcano in Zoe Pierce's sixth-grade science class at the Impact School.

Earlier this month, John Carney , the Democratic governor of Delaware, was in Springfield with Charlie Baker, this state’s Republican governor.

Why? As he looks for ways to improve Delaware’s schools, Governor Carney wanted “to see first-hand how local officials, educators, community members, and the state came together to improve outcomes in high-needs schools,” says spokesman Jonathan Starkey.

Five years ago, the notion of an out-of-state governor visiting Springfield to study its schools would have seemed strange indeed. But Springfield’s innovative Empowerment Zone Partnership, a city-state initiative to improve education in the City of Firsts, is earning notice and interest inside the state and out.

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Last month, Mayor Jon Mitchell of New Bedford urged the Legislature to pass a plan letting mayors put their Level 3 schools — those in the lowest 20 percent — into such zones. Currently, the only way such a zone can be established is when schools have been designated among the Commonwealth’s most struggling, Level 4; the state then has additional authority to leverage remedial action. But state Senator Eric Lesser and state Representative Alice Peisch, cochairs of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Education, are pushing a bill to establish the Springfield model as one that school districts can adopt for Level 3 schools.

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The goal is to push innovation and accountability down to the school level. Schools in an “Innovation Partnership Zone” would be free from many district directives and perhaps from some provisions of the district teachers contract, and would have much more control over hiring and curriculum. A special board, though one with all the local stakeholders included, would oversee those schools.

“We hear a lot of positives from the Springfield community,” says Peisch. Lesser, from nearby Longmeadow, says there’s “a palpable sense of excitement and mission” in the nine middle schools and one high school included in the zone.

But at the State House, there’s also a palpable skittishness about the legislation. Why? Well, even though Springfield teachers are generally enthusiastic about the empowerment zone there, the idea is vehemently opposed by the Massachusetts Teachers Association, which is a key Democratic electoral ally. No surprise there — not with today’s MTA, led as it is by left-wing firebrand Barbara Madeloni, who has made waging battles her modus operandi. As she put it in the MTA’s Summer 2017 bulletin, “Fighting is winning.”

When the two lawmakers filed their legislation earlier in the year, Lesser, hearing the MTA was upset, reached out to the union. As a progressive Democrat who opposed last year’s charter-school ballot question and has a 100 percent AFL-CIO labor-vote rating, he should have strong union cred.

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“I said that we’re happy to talk. They said, ‘We will talk when the bill is withdrawn,’ ” he recalls.

One would expect that kind of MTA recalcitrance on a measure to increase charter schools, which aren’t unionized. But as Lesser notes, the teachers in the empowerment zone are still dues-paying union members and they still bargain collectively. And the empowerment zone approach increases teachers’ roles, through the establishment of teacher leadership teams.

“You get the benefit of reforms without draining resources from the existing schools,” he says. Further, “This is a way to prevent state takeovers” of a city’s underperforming schools. Which is one reason why Mayor Mitchell of New Bedford, another opponent of Question 2, backs the school empowerment zone legislation — and why Mayor Marty Walsh of Boston should, too.

A locally led effort naturally gets more buy-in than a state takeover, Mitchell told the education committee in September, adding that city leaders shouldn’t have to wait until a school hits “rock bottom” before taking bold action to improve it.

The legislature can give cities that power. It’s time for lawmakers to find the fortitude to put this state’s school kids ahead of its teachers unions.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.