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Scot Lehigh

Whose needs come first in schools?

By Scot Lehigh
Globe Columnist / December 16, 2009

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AT FIRST GLANCE, it’s a relatively minor matter - but in fact, we’ve just seen a demonstration of the way the devil in the details could cripple efforts to reform underperforming schools.

Last week, an arbitrator ruled that a modest program to reward advanced placement instructors for boosting student scores overstepped management’s authority in the Boston school system. That’s a victory for the Boston Teachers Union, but a loss for both urban kids and AP teachers.

But now consider the slow and expensive arbitration process itself. The initial hearing was held in May. The decision will cost the Boston Public Schools $42,850 in legal fees, plus $6,000 for its half of the arbitrator’s fee.

“Any time you put arbitration in there, the result is eminently predictable, and that is that reform will proceed at a glacial pace, if at all,’’ says Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation. “If the Legislature needed a reminder of that, here it is.’’

And make no mistake, the Legislature needs just such a reminder as it crafts new education reform legislation aimed at enhancing our chances of winning several hundred million in federal Race to the Top dollars. During last month’s debate, the unions and their Senate allies succeeded in inserting binding arbitration for crucial turnaround decisions at failing schools.

The philosophy behind the original legislation was simple and sensible. If a school is performing satisfactorily, employees should retain their job protections and, further, their approval should be required for changes in the school’s mission.

But at schools deemed underperforming or chronically underperforming, management should have greater authority to reconstitute faculty and staff and modify contracts. As a practical matter, only about 40 schools out of 1,846 schools statewide would be subject to turnaround efforts at any one time, and they would be among the worst in the state.

“What we are saying is that we need very significant change in this small number of schools,’’ said Representative Marty Walz, House chair of the Legislature’s joint education committee.

The committee’s original legislation stipulated that all employees in schools targeted for turnaround efforts would have to reapply for their jobs. Those who weren’t rehired would be given paid time to improve their skills and find positions elsewhere.

The Senate version, however, now stipulates that employees can only be terminated for cause and gives them the right to have any such decision reviewed by an arbitrator.

Under the original bill, the superintendent or state education commissioner would have increased authority to force changes in the teachers’ contract in those schools. But the Senate version preserves that power only in the very worst schools. In the second-to-last tier, unions could take contract changes to binding arbitration.

Now, if one believes the top priority at failing schools is to protect faculty and staff jobs, then the Senate’s amendments make perfect sense. But if you think the fundamental purpose of schools is to educate students, then more dramatic change is called for when they fall short.

“We are trying to give superintendents and teachers the tools they need to return a school to effectiveness as quickly as possible,’’ said Paul Reville, the state secretary of education. “In the interest of students who have been trapped in underperforming schools, everything ought to be measured against that standard.’’

But if key restructuring decisions require arbitration, turnaround efforts will get bogged down or be avoided altogether. House members need to recognize that reality when they meet in caucus today to discuss the education legislation.

They should also resist those who contend that the state’s quest for Race to the Top dollars really won’t be hurt by a weak bill - or even by a failure to pass one at all.

“We are facing very stiff competition from other states,’’ said Reville. “To beat that competition, we are going to have to show dramatic leaps forward on innovation, on intervention, and on charter schools.’’

An uncertain trumpet so far on education reform, House Speaker Robert DeLeo should make delivering that kind of dramatic change his first resolution for the new year.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.

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