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All's quiet on the Massachusetts front -- tonight at least. Photo by PhilPie

All's quiet on the Massachusetts front -- tonight at least. Photo by PhilPie

Last month, I noted how states such as California and Tennessee have pushed to qualify for federal Race to the Top funding by passing measures lifting caps on the number of charter schools and allowing the use of student test data in measuring teacher performance. Now, New York and Massachusetts are trying to get into the act. And unfortunately for school reformers in those states, not even federal money is enough to gain traction.

Tonight, senators in the Bay State passed a reform measure by a vote of 28-11 after hours of debate and some 100 proposed amendments. The bill does lift the cap on the number of charters the state can authorize, but it also restricts the presence of charters to areas of the state where traditional public schools are in pervasive academic failure. Charter school advocates weren’t satisfied for several reasons, including the fact that the requirement that the first three schools authorized had to be located in the worst-performing districts; since only three charter schools are approved annually, the advocates fear that charter school expansion is just smoke.

Opponents of charter school expansion may figure out a way to kill the bill in Massachusetts’ lower house. One legislator, Liz Malia, has already told the StateHouse News Service that: “Charter advocates did a lot of things very quietly… and they got too much of the pie.” The bill may not even be passed this year.  

Meanwhile in the Empire State, the New York State United Teachers — an affiliate of both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association — is already bearing its teeth in opposition to a set of proposals from state Assemblyman Sam Hoyt to end the state’s ban on using test scores in evaluating the performance of probationary (pre-tenure) teachers and lift the cap on charter school expansion.  The state Education Department and Board of Regents also wants to bring back the use of test scores in evaluations. Given that United Teachers successfully brought the ban back to life last year after it was ended in 2007, the likelihood of tying student and teacher performance may be a dead horse not worth the time for legislators — thinking about their re-election efforts — to kick.

New York State officials also remain stubborn about addressing other changes needed to qualify for Race to the Top. Lame duck Gov. David Paterson (yes, he’s running for election, but he’s unlikely to win) hasn’t been willing to exercise any of the pluck he has shown in battling the legislature over the state’s fiscal morass. The new state education commissioner, David Steiner, also seems less interested in reform than even his predecessor, the much-lauded (and also, much-bemoaned and often spendthrifty) Richard Mills.

These battles do show the limits of federal government-led reform initiatives even when the dollars are attached to the effort. That the final Race to the Top rules hardly touch teacher quality reform — among the most-important issues in achieving true education reform — also makes the opposition among traditional education supporters at the state level seem rather, well, ridiculous. After all, allowing parents additional school options — and thus, making them true partners in education decision-making — should be embraced by every educator. And test score data is certainly far more objective than the standards used in private-sector performance reviews (which, by the way, use plenty of subjective multiple measures).

School reformers have clearly won the battle for the hearts and minds of leaders at the federal level; they have certainly won the day in states such as Indiana and Colorado, where legislators and governors have reached agreement some agreement on the need for overhauling public education. Even California, who may find itself replacing one reform advocate (Arnold Schwarzenegger) with another (former Gov. Jerry Brown) after 2010, may actually move towards meaningful reform.

But in states where systemic political dysfunction is the norm, teachers unions and other defenders of traditional public education can rally supporters on their behalf.  They can count on  some of their longtime critics on issues such as the expansion of charter schools. There is also the skepticism of school reform among suburban parents, who may realize public schools are in atrocious shape, but also have a relationship with schools and teachers that few school reformers (save for the Steve Barrs and Geoffrey Canadas) have dared to match.

The relationships between parents, traditional public school officials and teachers are, for the most part, superficial; the latter two are disinterested in any active parental involvement outside of the traditional jobs of supervising homework and attending field trips. They don’t want parents to be full partners in decision-making. But like any, dare one say, abusive relationship, the parents are more than willing to play along . And together, this trinity is formidable against school reform. In those states, school reformers must move themselves out of the Beltway and into the grassroots in order to win the day.

Given the influence of state legislation on local reforms and on national efforts, these battlegrounds will loom larger in school reform discussions.