Boston coalition pushes for all schools to have the same autonomy and flexibility as successful charter schools

Jul 24, 2013 by

BOSTON – It’s a well-known fact that Boston has some of the best charter schools in the nation.

That’s largely because they have the autonomy to try new things and push teachers and students to achieve greater goals.

Now a coalition of education advocates wants every Boston school – including the 128 traditional government schools – to have the same type of freedom and flexibility, CommonWealth Magazine reports.

The group – called “Boston: Forward” – is using the current race for mayor of Boston to bring attention to its cause and enlist the support of mayoral candidates.

But the group has one powerful opponent – the Boston Teachers Union.

The union currently controls the traditional public schools through a tightly structured system of collective bargaining rules and regulations, and its leaders don’t want school administrators to have the type of power and freedom that charter school leaders enjoy.

“We think this should be the defining issue of the race,” Chris Gagrieli, a Boston: Forward organizer told the magazine.

“Our message is that Boston could break out beyond any district in the country simply by allowing the things in Boston that are outstanding to multiply, by getting out of the way,” he said.

The coalition consists of about 80 charter school officials, leaders of nonprofit education groups and community organizations, research and policy advocates, business leaders, public school officials, entrepreneurs and think tanks that represent students and families from across the city.

Their common thread is a belief that the key to academic success is giving individual schools far more control over their own operations, including autonomy over budgeting, hiring, scheduling, work rules, curriculum and professional development.

The group’s vision for education in Boston is a decentralized system based on successful strategies that embraces all types of education providers – community and nonprofits, the city’s public schools, public charter schools and private schools, according to the Boston: Forward website.

“We envision a Boston where every child from every family in every neighborhood attends a consistently high performing school,” according to the site.

A recent study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University named Boston charter schools the highest-performing in the nation. Some traditional public schools in the city with a high level of autonomy have also excelled, CommonWealth Magazine reports.

“We are sending the message that we know what works,” said Boston: Forward member Andrew Bott, who used increased autonomy to turn around Roxbury’s Orchard Gardens School. “It’s about taking that to scale.”

Key components


The major components of the Boston: Forward proposal are autonomy and accountability for individual schools.

In 2010, state lawmakers passed legislation to allow more charter schools and give local communities authority to create “innovation” schools that operate with a similar degree of autonomy as charter schools. The Boston: Forward coalition wants to expand the charter school model to all district schools, and replicate the things that allow top schools to flourish.

From CommonWealth Magazine:

“Coalition members say that means it’s also crucial that the next mayor focus not simply on hiring a highly regarded administrator to replace retiring superintendent Carol Johnson, but on recruiting a leader who shares the vision of pushing resources and authority – along with accountability for outcomes – down to the school level.

“Rather than aiming to build a great school system – a challenge that has eluded every large urban district in the country – the new thinking talks about having a system of great schools. It’s a minor change in word order that signals a fundamental break with the centralized district structure that has characterized big city school systems for a hundred years.

“Rejecting the polarization of what they call a tiresome war pitting district school advocates against charter school supporters, the Boston: Forward coalition also says the next mayor should embrace the idea of developing a constellation of high-quality schools, regardless of whether they operate within or outside the district structure.”

“We need more good charters, we need more schools inside the system to embrace autonomy,” former state secretary of education Paul Reville said.

Lindsay Sobel, executive director of Teach Plus – an organization that helps schools recruit and retain top teaching talent – echoed that sentiment, and added that a more performance-based system would help to elevate the teaching profession in general.

“Autonomy at schools can create the flexibility to give teachers a strong role in the leadership of the school and in creating a vision for how a school should operate,” Sobel told Commonwealth.

Boston: Forward believes city education officials should focus on expanding seats at high-quality schools,  with a mentality that “we don’t care who runs them as long as they’re great – that’s a revolutionary mindset from which everything else cascades,” Andy Smarick, author of The Urban School System of the Future, told Commonwealth Magazine.

Political realities


The Boston Teachers Union represents a major hurdle for the proposed reforms.

The union has opposed virtually every reform in the Boston: Forward proposal and holds considerable political sway. BTU contract rules control all aspects of school operations and spending in the Boston school district, and “a new, thin contract with the BTU will be needed to enable these autonomies at many schools,” according to the coalition’s website.

But few expect the union to accept a “new, thin” contract without a fight. The BTU’s current contract dictates many public school functions – including budgeting, hiring, scheduling, work rules, professional development – virtually everything that Boston: Forward wants to give schools more power to control.

The union won’t walk away from that type of control without a fight.

That means those running for mayor will be forced to choose sides between parents and reformers pushing for a more effective education system, and union officials who could crush their political aspirations.

The coalition isn’t endorsing specific candidates, but the attention the group is bringing to education issues in the city is forcing many to take a position, and it’s quickly becoming clear which candidates are open to bucking the status quo and the union.

“Four candidates, Roxbury nonprofit leader John Barros, Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley, City Councilor John Connolly, and health center founder Bill Walczak, have already voiced strong support for raising the charter cap and extending similar autonomies to district schools,” Commonwealth Magazine reports.

“State Rep. Marty Walsh supports the charter-cap lift, but the former union leader seems to be searching for a middle ground on the issue of district school autonomy. At a forum … Walsh said that he’d try to negotiate such changes with the city’s teachers union rather than impose them through legislation now pending on Beacon Hill.”

Boston coalition pushes for all schools to have the same autonomy and flexibility as successful charter schools – powered by Education Action Group Foundation, Inc..

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