State takeover is clearly working in Massachusetts

Dec 31, 2013 by

LAWRENCE, Mass. – It’s almost humorous to read the teachers union’s argument for restoring full collective bargaining in the Lawrence, Massachusetts school district:

“Teachers are in the classrooms every day with children, who knows better what our students need than their teachers?” Frank McLaughlin, president of the Lawrence Teachers Union, recently told state legislators.

At least a few of those lawmakers must have been tempted to respond with the obvious retort:

For years, with full collective bargaining in effect, the Lawrence school district suffered from “systemic failure, poor test scores and low graduation rates” and was considered Massachusetts’ “most troubled school district.”

The teachers were in the classroom, all right, but nobody was learning.

Since the state took over the district in 2011, and suspended most union activities, the district has started to rebound academically. Students have shown significant gains in math and English scores and more individual schools have reached the stop status of state rankings.

So who would want to rock the boat?

The teachers union, of course. The LTU has formally asked the Massachusetts state legislature to restore its collective bargaining privileges across the board, so the district can revert to the old way of doing things – the way that led to the academic disaster in the first place.

Union leaders whine that the state has “silenced teachers” and is making major decisions on behalf of the district without consulting staff, according to the EagleTribune.com.

They complain that the state is stretching a law that gives it “a little extra authority” to override a section or two of the teacher’s collective bargain agreement. They say the state has used the law to cancel nearly every aspect of the CBA, leaving the union with no voice.

“They have completely and absolutely used that … to take away all the collective bargaining rights of the teachers in Lawrence,” McLaughlin told EagleTribune.com.

Oh well. It seems to be working for the kids, and the kids are what matter in this deeply troubled school district. The teachers’ needs came first for decades and the district hit rock bottom.

Perhaps it’s time for the union leaders to sit down, shut up and let Lawrence kids do some learning for a change.

State takeover was clearly needed

Lawrence is the only school district in Massachusetts under state receivership. The intervention had been a long time coming.

The academic performance of students was absolutely miserable. A quick look at the 2011 results of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam tells the story.

Lawrence fifth graders ranked 304th out of 306 districts in English skills and 300th in math. Sixth graders ranked 309th out of 311 districts in English and 307th in math. Seventh graders ranked 279th out of 283 districts in English and 276th in math. Eighth-graders ranked 280th out of 282 districts in English and 279th in math.

Tenth-graders were dead last among 289 districts in science and math.

When student scores from all grades were combined, 41 percent were proficient or advanced in English while 69 percent needed improvement or were failing. Only 26 percent were proficient or advanced in math while 71 percent needed improvement or were failing.

The district’s high school had been without accreditation since 1997. A series of superintendents had been hired and fired, including one who was accused of on-the-job fraud and embezzlement. About 27 percent of high school students were dropping out before graduation, according to EagleTribune.com.

The State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education finally had enough and voted 10-1 in November 2011 to label the district “chronically underperforming” and allow a state takeover.

Several members of the Lawrence school board and several city officials had asked for state assistance, but something less than a full takeover. That wasn’t possible, according to Massachusetts Education Commission Mitchell Chester.

“The ideal is that local governments run their own school districts, not that the state runs school districts,” Chester said at the time. “It’s only in the extreme situation that I would recommend receivership, which is what we have here in Lawrence.”

Despite what they felt was state overreach, many local officials recognized the need for dramatic change.

“Today marks a new day for our school district and symbolizes a sign of hope for our parents and children within our district,” said Lawrence Mayor William Lantigua, who also served as chairman of the school district committee.

Academics improve, but the union doesn’t care

Chester appointed Jeffrey Riley to become the district’s Superintendent/Receiver for 3 ½ years, beginning in January 2012.

Riley wasted no time making big changes in the district, according to the ValleyPatriot.com.

He ordered an extensive review of all principals and teachers in the district, which led to the replacement of 10 principals and 160 teachers. Among the new teachers were many from the Teach for America program, which enlists top college graduates from throughout the nation to spend at least two years teaching in troubled school districts.

He eliminated 25 positions in the district’s central office and consolidated nine management-level departments into five. Those moves saved about $1.3 million per year, which was diverted to neighborhood schools.

And perhaps most importantly, Riley used his power to dictate the terms of a new collective bargaining agreement with the teachers union. Instead of trying to negotiate for the right to turn the district around, he laid down the law, rewriting broad sections of the old contract that made effective administration difficult.

He insisted on a longer school day and year, imposed a performance-based compensation system for teachers, reserved the right for building principals to make staffing decisions without regard to seniority, instituted a more rigorous teacher evaluation system, imposed a new layoff policy based on performance rather than seniority, declared that the district had the right to fire any teacher from an underperforming district regardless of their tenure status, and gave himself broad power to ignore any contract stipulations that interfered with his school turnaround plan.

Of course the union was livid.

“Rather than collaborate with the union and work cooperatively to professionally address the stakeholder recommendations, he has instead opted to unilaterally void large portions of your contract McLaughlin complained to the union board. “This is extremely troubling because his actions do nothing to help schools, children and the families of Lawrence.”

In truth Mitchell’s actions have been very beneficial to the school district and its students, EagleTribune.com.

Four schools in the district are now ranked Level 1 by the state, compared to only two a few years ago. The percentage of students rated proficient or better in Math increased by double digits in grades 3, 5, 8 and 10, according to EagleTribune.com. Twenty of 24 schools have demonstrated overall improvement in math, while 14 of 24 have demonstrated overall improvement in English.

Yet union leaders still scream about the loss of collective bargaining privileges, and somehow have the nerve to suggest, with straight faces, that the changes have been bad for students. The obvious truth is that they have no interest in student performance or the recent academic improvements in the district. They only care about regaining their clout.

The Boston Herald reacted with disgust at the union’s brazen attempt to use its influence in the state capitol to derail the improvements in the school district.

“It’s far too early to tell what impact the extended (classroom) hours and increased resources will have on student performance. But it’s not too early for McLaughlin (the union president) to start whining about teachers being “silenced” … and being deprived of their collective bargaining rights.

“What is also astonishing (and shameful) is that State Rep. Christine Canavan … has filed legislation that would turn the clock back in cities like Lawrence and once again allow union collective bargaining rights to trump the rights of students to a decent education.”

State takeover is clearly working in Massachusetts district, but union wants its collective bargaining back – EAGnews.org powered by Education Action Group Foundation, Inc..

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