With receivership, there is opportunity for Holyoke schools

The Republican
May 8, 2015

By Marty Walz

No one wants the state to come into a community to take control of local schools. There are times, however, when state intervention is the best outcome for children. For Holyoke, that time is now.

As the chief author of the 2010 law empowering the state to appoint a receiver for Holyoke’s schools, I offer my perspective on what the law is intended to accomplish and how Holyoke residents can turn this demoralizing moment into something positive.

The roots of receivership are in the 1993 Supreme Judicial Court ruling affirming the state’s constitutional duty to assure that all students have the opportunity to receive a high quality education. Holyoke residents participated in the case because they rightly believed their children’s constitutional rights were being violated.

In the 22 years since, the state invested millions of dollars in Holyoke and took a series of actions to fulfill its constitutional duty, including education reform laws in 1993 and 2010. Holyoke’s elected leaders and school officials also instituted important changes. Unfortunately, these efforts did not result in students receiving a high quality education.

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education authorized receivership because previous efforts have not done enough for students. It is a dramatic step, and one state law permits only in rare instances. It signals that the state is unwilling to stand by as yet another generation of Holyoke students do not get the top-notch education they deserve.

Receivership means the state is willing to take direct responsibility for the education of Holyoke’s children. As the Supreme Judicial Court wrote about the state’s constitution in 1993, “the commonwealth has a duty to provide an education for all its children, rich and poor, in every city and town of the Commonwealth.”

Some Holyoke residents note that they don’t know how the receiver will change the schools. They are right, and that is what state law intends. Under the 2010 law, the receiver must craft a district improvement plan only after soliciting recommendations from local stakeholders. The receiver may not unilaterally impose his or her own ideas but, instead, is required to listen to community members. I would not want a receiver coming into my city and decreeing changes, so the 2010 law mandates that the receiver work collaboratively and transparently (for example, the receiver must abide by the state’s open meeting law).

Children face challenges outside school that negatively impact their academic achievement, from homelessness to poverty and violence. Educators are not solely responsible for student performance, which is why the 2010 law requires a receiver to work with community-based organizations when creating and implementing a district turnaround plan. Schools do not operate in a vacuum, and receivers must work within the larger context when designing and implementing a district improvement plan.

The Holyoke Teachers Association opposed receivership, and teachers worry they will lose their jobs or face the loss of collective bargaining rights. As the daughter of a school librarian active in her union, I know how important unions are. The 2010 law neither eliminates the union’s rights nor mandates that teachers be fired. Rather, the law contains procedures to resolve disputes between the teachers union and the receiver and to protect teachers if they lose their position.

Holyoke’s schools are the lowest performing schools in the state, and residents understand their schools are falling short. In a recent poll, 78 percent of voters said they believe the schools need moderate changes or a major overhaul. Residents strongly support a longer school day to provide more time for learning and for the arts, music, drama, and sports. They want more tutors in the classroom. Rather than a punishment for low academic achievement, receivership offers an opportunity for the changes Holyoke residents want for their schools.

The state appointed a receiver in 2011 for Lawrence’s public schools due to their long history of poor academic performance. The Lawrence experience shows what is possible when a community embraces change: student achievement is up, and there is optimism about the schools’ future.

Receivership is a powerful tool the state is using to protect the constitutional rights of Holyoke’s children. Now is the time to create a school system that delivers on the promise of a high quality public education for every child.

Martha M. Walz was a State Representative from Boston from 2005-2013. She was Co-Chair of the Education Committee in 2009-2010 and was the lead author of An Act Relative to the Achievement Gap.

This column originally appeared here.

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