State Takeovers/Privatization

Massachusetts General Laws have authorized state intervention in school districts for a number of years. Under these provisions, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has placed a number of schools and districts in receivership. Proposals have been made to expand the commissioner of education’s school takeover powers even more. The MTA is pushing back against this accountability system, which is based on sanctioning educators, schools and districts rather than providing them with support.

The MTA is interested in hearing from educators, students and parents about their experiences working and learning in Level 4 or 5 schools. Click here to comment on issues such as adequacy of resources, staffing, school climate, support services, curriculum and instruction and leadership.

BACKGROUND

The Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993 established a requirement for annual evaluations of schools and districts, as well as creation of the designations “underperforming” and “chronically underperforming.” The basis for the identification of schools or districts in these two categories has changed over time in response to federal and state requirements.

In 2010, the Massachusetts Achievement Gap Act changed how underperforming and chronically underperforming schools would be identified, and it specified what actions must be taken in those schools. In combination with federal requirements related to No Child Left Behind, the DESE created an accountability system that designated schools and districts at one of five levels, ranging from Level 1 to Level 5. Level 4 corresponds to underperforming and Level 5 to chronically underperforming.

Under this system, any school is designated Level 3 if its performance is in the bottom 20% on a number of indicators based on a complicated formula. The commissioner of education is empowered to designate Level 3 schools Level 4 or Level 5. The total number of Level 4 and 5 schools is limited to no more than 4 percent of all schools — about 65 to 75 schools. In 2016-17, there were 33 schools in Level 4 and four schools in Level 5.

Superintendents are given additional authority in Level 4 schools to develop and implement a school improvement plan, with some oversight by the commissioner. Level 4 schools that receive federal school improvement grant funding must implement specified intervention strategies that include substantial changes to staffing, scheduling and leadership. Any changes to the collective bargaining agreement are negotiated using an expedited process, with unresolved issues decided by a joint resolution committee representing both parties and a neutral third party.

In schools and districts designated Level 5, the commissioner takes control of the school or district and appoints a receiver, which replaces the authority of the School Committee. The commissioner/receiver also has expanded authority to make substantial changes similar to that of the superintendent in Level 4 schools. In addition, a Level 5 receiver has the option of making substantial changes to the collective bargaining agreement, and the obligation to bargain over those changes is greatly diminished.

One strategy has been to appoint a private education management organization to manage Level 4 and 5 schools and districts.

EDUCATION MANAGEMENT ORGANIZATIONS

The use of education management organizations has been part of the DESE strategy for schools labeled underperforming and chronically underperforming since 2010. An EMO is a private organization that is given control of school management, policies and budget. The EMO, not the School Committee, is in charge of the school.

While state takeover and the appointment of a receiver are required for Level 5 schools and districts, the use of a private provider is an option for superintendents of Level 4 schools; superintendents are charged with developing a “turnaround” plan for these schools.

In a number of instances, the commissioner has forced Level 4 schools to select an EMO approach for their school plan, using a Level 5 designation as a threat.

"INNOVATION PARTNERSHIP ZONES"

An alternative takeover strategy creates a separate zone consisting of one or more schools. Schools in the zone are managed by an appointed Board of Directors, which replaces the elected School Committee. This board has the authority to change some district policies and provisions of collective bargaining agreements. Bills have been filed in the Massachusetts Legislature for the 2017-18 session that allow an “Innovation Partnership Zone” as a state takeover option for the commissioner.

The MTA opposes Innovation Partnership Zone proposals, which eliminate democratic control of public education, reduce collective bargaining and provide no additional resources for schools.

MTA-BACKED LEGISLATION

MTA’s legislative proposals offer a different vision of how to support struggling schools . They include a three-year moratorium on high-stakes testing, community control of school improvement efforts, adequate funding and support for a community-school model.

PRIVATE PROVIDERS IN MASSACHUSETTS

Five private providers have been given control of Massachusetts schools or districts. Only one of those providers is currently working with the schools – UP Education Network. Empower Schools does not have control of any school or districts; however, it advises and supports the Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership.

ProviderSchoolsStatus
EdLabs Five schools in Springfield Left after one year
Blueprint  Paul A. Dever School, Boston   Contract not renewed after three years
Project Grad 

Morgan Full-Service Community School, Holyoke
William J. Dean Vocational Technical High School, Holyoke 

Morgan – contract not renewed after one year
Dean – contract not renewed after two years
UP Education Network 

Two district schools in Lawrence
One Horace Mann charter school in the Springfield Empowerment Zone
One district school in Boston
Two Commonwealth charter schools in Boston 

All contracts active
Collaborative for Educational Services  Dean Vocational-Technical School, Holyoke   Terminated its contract after two years
Empower Schools  Advises and supports schools in Lawrence, Salem and Springfield  Current contract to support Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership

LEVEL 5 DISTRICTS

In 2011, Lawrence became the first Massachusetts community to have control of its schools taken away from its School Committee and given to the commissioner of education. The commissioner and Board of Elementary and Secondary Education took over the Holyoke Public Schools in 2015 and the Southbridge Public Schools in 2016. Each of these school districts has a student population of at least 65 percent economically disadvantaged students — and all three rank among the 15 districts with the highest poverty rates in Massachusetts.

Each of the Level 5 districts has an individual (not an organization) serving as receiver.

LEVEL 5 SCHOOLS

In addition to these three districts, the commissioner has taken control of two schools in Boston, one in New Bedford and one in Holyoke. In each school, at least 70 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged.

Three of the four Level 5 schools were assigned education management organizations as their receivers. In one school — the John Avery Parker Elementary School in New Bedford — the superintendent was named the school’s receiver.

SHARE YOUR EXPERIENCES

The MTA is interested in hearing from educators, students and parents about their experiences working and learning in Level 4 and 5 schools. Click here to comment on issues such as adequacy of resources, staffing, school climate, support services, curriculum and instruction and leadership.