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Offering a new way forward for urban schools

Governor Charlie Baker addressed a join session of the Legislature last month during his State of the Commonwealth address.STEVEN SENNE/ASSOCIATED PRESS

FOR THOSE LOOKING for a way forward on urban education after last year’s polarizing charter school ballot battle, one hopeful sign came in Governor Charlie Baker’s recent State of the Commonwealth speech. After celebrating the state’s overall success on education reform, Baker said he wanted to work with legislative Democrats on school innovation zones.

Schools in such zones would operate under an independent city-state board and have the budgetary and management independence to institute their own improvement plans. That would mean freeing them from district directives and probably loosening some provisions of the local teachers’ contract. The flexibility they enjoy would come in areas such as curriculum, budget, schedule and calendar, staffing, and professional development.


Noting that “we have an obligation to every parent and child in Massachusetts,” Baker gave a shout-out to state Representative Alice Peisch, Democrat of Wellesley, and state Senator Eric Lesser, Democrat of Longmeadow, who have filed legislation based on the empowerment zone experiment in Springfield.

“In Springfield, this model is already making a positive difference for teachers and students,” Baker said. There, nine middle schools and one high school are in the zone, which is overseen by an independent city-state board. Teachers like the role they have on the individual schools’ teacher leadership teams. The initiative has even won qualified praise from the local teachers union.

“There are things that could use some adjustment, but overall it has done a really good job,” says Lesser, who represents about half that city. “Springfield has been able to avoid a state takeover and create a model for getting everyone talking to each other and all the stakeholders working collaboratively.”

Under the legislators’ plan, either a district or the state commissioner of education could propose an innovation zone comprising several schools in a community. For a locally initiated zone, at least one of those schools would have to rank in the lowest 20 percent statewide in measures of academic performance. For the commissioner to initiate such a zone, one or more of the included schools would have to fall further, into the category of underperformance that allows for turnaround interventions.


That approach to improving urban schools should prove less controversial than an increase in the number of charter schools, which have drawn the implacable opposition of the teachers unions, an influential Democratic constituency group. Empowerment or innovation zones, by contrast, might well win support from Democratic mayors, who mostly opposed the charter-school ballot question.

There, Baker sent another subtle message. Noting the state takeover efforts in Lawrence, Holyoke, and Southbridge, where state-appointed receivers run the school districts, Baker said he would also urge the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education “to continue to use this tool.” State takeovers are anathema to the unions, because they strengthen management’s ability to replace unsuitable teachers and effectuate union contract changes necessary for school improvement. So the Baker message here was essentially this: I’m determined to move forward on poorly performing urban schools; I’d like to do it together, but if necessary, I will push forward alone. For his part, Lesser says his hope is that district stakeholders will embrace the innovation zone idea as a way to stave off possible state takeovers of districts.

After Baker’s speech, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who opposed the charter-school ballot question, said he hoped to speak to the governor soon about this new approach. State Senator Linda Dorcena Forry, Democrat of Boston, another opponent of Question 2, also expressed interest.


That’s promising. There are lots of issues to work out, but it’s time for policy makers to put last year’s charter school fight behind them and forge a new way forward on improving urban education.