Why tone and language matter

There is a big battle brewing in Massachusetts over whether or not to raise the current cap on the number of charter seats allowed in the state. In an attempt to address the concerns of both sides, the Senate working group has written a piece of legislation that addresses not only the cap on the number of seats but also funding disparities, transparency concerns as well as safe guards for the most vulnerable students. I personally don’t have an issue with student and families being offered a variety of educational options, this includes charter schools. Each child is different and a one size fits all model of education will no longer work because our needs are very different than when public standardized education was first introduced in this country. But the impact on the majority of students (96%) in traditional public schools needs to be mitigated to prevent a complete collapse of public education.

Many parents are in support of this bill because it takes a balanced, nuanced approach to a very complex situation and requires collaboration between those that favor charter schools and those that favor traditional public education. The teachers unions and the pro charter backers have decided they would rather fight it out at the ballot box and in the process spend millions of dollars that they could otherwise invest in educational initiatives across the state. I’d ask that they all take a look at the end goal – happy, productive kids and determine how best to focus their energies. While the dismissal of the RISE Act by Governor Baker and Mayor Walsh is telling as to where their support clearly lies, the most egregious response was from Paul Grogan, head of The Boston Foundation.

We have a big success story happening in a very difficult area, and if there’s some pain and suffering to existing institutions because they haven’t been able to be effective, there’s going to have to be consequences to that, just as there is in the private sector.

I’d like to break this down:

  • We have a big success story– This statement implies that charter schools are far more successful than traditional public schools. I have not seen results to support those claims after digging down into the data. Yes, some schools appear to be more successful when using traditional measures of standardized test scores. However, what is not addressed, are cohort attrition rates. While charters students are accepted on a lottery basis, there is a disproportionate attrition rate among ELL students and special needs students. In addition, I’m not convinced that most charters are doing anything revolutionary or innovative. Those that are deserve to be celebrated as do the pilot, Horace Mann and innovation schools within BPS. To say nothing of the alternative models of education that are popping up across the country.  More schools need to be given the freedom to do what works for their student population. This will require work on the part of districts and teachers unions as well as financial support from city, state and federal governments. As for charters, most seem to be simply offering the same rigid, model of standardized, institutionalized education but with fewer restrictions. The current educational model needs some real, significant  and systemic changes. However to require one model to adhere to one set of regulations and the other an entirely different set and compare them with the same standards is ridiculous.
  • “Very difficult area” – What he doesn’t say is but is implied is “urban public schools”. The charter battle is most heated in school districts serving highly concentrated areas of poverty with their schools labeled as “failing” schools. I don’t believe that it is just urban schools that are failing our children. This label of “failing schools” only being applied to schools as a measurement of test scores and graduation rates ignores the pernicious nature of poverty. Perhaps a serious look needs to be given to the myriad social services schools provide in these low income communities. Perhaps if city, state and federal officials made a real attempt to address the policy issues (both current and historical) that have left such disparate concentrations of wealth across the nation and specifically in cities such as Boston and San Francisco, schools wouldn’t need to provide so many services under the umbrella of education. The complexities surrounding educating low income students are beyond the scope of my experience. What I will say is that urban schools, from my perspective, are the final safety net for low income students. I do agree that many students are failing to get the education they deserve. While money will not solve all the problems, the fact that in BPS many schools don’t have a dedicated librarian or nurse, safe functional buildings or the variety of innovative challenging program offerings ubiquitous in the suburbs surrounding BPS is due to generations of financial neglect on the part of the city and state. In this case, more money will help alleviate the inequities.
  • If there’s some pain and suffering to existing institutions because they haven’t been able to be effective, there’s going to have to be consequences to that, just as there is in the private sector.” I’m not even sure where to begin with this statement. To me, it reveals disconnect between the focus on policy and the people it impacts. Institutions don’t feel pain and suffering, people do. The people, in this case, are the children of the Boston and other districts with high conentrations of poverty. Perhaps he should expand his definition of failing institutions to cover all areas of government and private regulations that have enabled a small percentage of citizens to continue to prosper while the majority are unable to advance economically in spite of hard work and determination. My question for Mr. Grogan would be “Do these kids really deserve to be punished because for generations, we as a country have failed to address the continual apathy towards the realities of the poor?”

I chose to believe Mr. Grogan does the work he does from a place of compassion and conviction. I’ve reviewed TBF’s 990 forms and they support a wide variety of initiatives to help improve the quality of life in the city of Boston. It is one of the few foundations that while  supporting charter schools, also support efforts within the Boston Public school system to address the shortfalls in their funding. I urge him to rethink this impact this statement is having on the 56,000 students in Boston public and across the state. We would all be better served if we work together to raise up all students rather than place the focus on a small percentage of kids and continue to label them as “failing.” We need to change the narrative and begin highlighting what is working across the board (traditional public schools, charter schools, private schools and alternative educational models) and work to expand those that are successful in a fair and equitable way to more children.

 

First up – Is an increase of $241.07 per student really so historic?

This is my reaction to the recent OpEd written by Mayor Walsh and Superintendent Chang. In it, Mayor Walsh highlights the new challenges facing the school district and the unprecedented financial support he has allocated to the school system. Given inflation, that should come as no surprise to him or taxpayers. Every year, assuming growth, costs rise. Some years they may rise further than others but if we are growing as a city, increased expenses are part of the equation. He also states that he has allocated an unprecedented 1.1 billion dollars including 13.5 million more than last year towards education. If my math is correct, that is approximately $241.07 per student. He also fails to acknowledge it is smaller increase than previous years, that Boston’s education budget as percentage of the city’s budget is smaller than approximately 60% of other cities and towns in Boston and that across the state, public education accounts for, on average 53% of town budget allocations. For a detailed analysis: http://publicschoolmama.com/2015/12/29/lets-crunch-some-numbers-and-take-a-look-at-that-billion-dollar-bps-budget/#more-339.

As a citizen of Boston for over 20 years, I am concerned about the policies being prioritized as well as the tenor of communication coming out of Mayor Walsh’s office. Mayor Walsh continues to claim that he wants to work with students and parents but at every turn, discredits our understanding of the impact this budget will have, diminishes our advocacy for our children as “screaming” and obfuscates the details of his decisions in a flurry of PR and spin in an effort to discourage discourse

I am a parent of a 9th grader at Boston Arts Academy. She chose Boston Arts Academy over any other school in the Boston area – including exam schools and private schools. We are fortunate that she has options. After evaluation her options, she chose a BPS school. I highlight this because Mayor Walsh and other supporters of choice seem to believe, for student and parents who make a choice, it is always to opt out of a district school.

This is not the case with our family nor is it the case with countless other students and families that have spoken up on behalf of their schools over the past two months. It is not the case for the families of the thousands of kids waiting for a k1 or K2 spot to open in BPS. It was not the case with the 3,600 students, of which my daughter was one, who walked out of their schools in protest of the impact the cuts were going to have on their future. They did not walk out in support of lifting the cap charter seats or transferring the cuts to the students in the k-8 schools. They walked out in support of addressing a budget gap that is impacting 56,000 kids in Boston.

Besides the lack of transparency with regards to information coming from Mayor Walsh’s office, both Mayor Walsh and Gov Baker are steadfast in their decision to support one “choice” for parents – expanding charter seats, over improving the systemic issues – both infrastructure and administration, that are plaguing BPS. Charter seats benefit a disproportionately small number of students at the expense of a quality education for the majority of the kids in this city.  This is designed to pit parent against parent in their advocacy efforts for their own children. If Mayor Walsh and Gov. Baker want to advocate for more charter options, they are entitled to do so. It would seem that they should first do the following 1) figure out the funding issues so that public school systems across the state aren’t decimated 2) ensure that all schools are evaluated with similar metrics based on similar student populations 3) work with students, parents and staff in the public systems to determine how best to meet the needs of their student constituents.

The front line faculty and the students especially are better equipped to inform as to what works for them and what doesn’t. We don’t need more commissions, studies, algorithms or education reform experts with little firsthand urban school experience to guide the way.

I am fully in favor of students and parents having choices when it comes to the type of school environment they want for their educational experience. As I’ve learned over the past few months, there are more schools doing excellent work across the city than I realized. For many, the BPS narrative stops with the exam schools and a few elementary schools but digging deeper, there are many schools doing innovate work with amazingly limited resources. #ImagineBoston where these schools were funded as if we were a wealthy suburb or a private school. What could they accomplish? Having spoken with countless families whose children have been failed by both charters and public schools across Greater Boston, there is room for everyone to make accommodations. Both administration and the union need to take a hard look at their positions and determine how best to meet the needs of the children of this city.  Yes, these problems are multifaceted but families in Boston don’t have the luxury of waiting years for these issues to be resolved.

The narrative coming out of Mayor Walsh’s office is both disingenuous and divisive. Mayor Walsh has repeatedly stated that there were not cuts while being fully aware that failing to fund to cover known cost increases would result in cuts in programming and staffing. By failing to even provide level funding, Mayor Walsh is further limiting the ability of schools across the city to provide an adequate, never mind excellent, educational experience to our most vulnerable students. This in turn bolsters the “failing schools narrative” into a reality that drives more parents in to the charter camp. The schools may be failing but it’s not for lack of trying. We as a city, and country are failing our most vulnerable citizens. Perhaps if we as a society can commit to addressing the myriad reasons for pervasive poverty, our public education system wouldn’t have to be such a wide net. If we parse out all the social services the schools provide to ensure that kids are able to participate in school, the BPS budget would be smaller. But given the priority our country currently places on low income, high needs citizens, our schools are the last defense. They deserve to be funded accordingly.