Trust but verify when it comes to school funding

The turnaround of Lawrence’s public schools is held up as a model. Just seven years after a state takeover of the district’s management and finances, the graduation rate had risen from an abysmal 52% to 72%, the dropout rate was suppressed from more than 8.5% to nearly 4%, and far more of the city’s 13,600 students were deemed proficient on the state’s MCAS exam.

“What’s gone on here in Lawrence … is truly remarkable,” state Education Secretary James Peyser said two years ago while congratulating Jeff Riley, then ending his tenure as the district’s receiver. Riley would later be named state commissioner of elementary and secondary education.

“I think Lawrence is rightly recognized as one of the most successful examples of school turnaround, district-level turnaround, that we’ve seen in public education,” said Peyser, “not just here in Massachusetts but anywhere in the country.”

The Lawrence story is an example of the success of state involvement, albeit an extreme one. Now some are pointing to it as justification for giving state education leaders authority to accept or reject plans crafted by local officials to improve student performance.

How much influence is given to state leaders — which really means Riley, or whoever sits in his office — goes to the heart of negotiations over a massive education reform package on Beacon Hill. And while arguments can be made on both sides, it seems more than reasonable that Riley should be made the judge of the merits of those plans.

That was essentially the idea baked into a version of the education bill passed by the state House of Representatives. The “Student Opportunity Act” changing how the state parcels education money would give the commonwealth’s 406 public school districts an added $1.5 billion, with an emphasis on programs for immigrant, low income and special education students. The money comes with the requirement that most districts draw up a three-year plan showing how they’ll bring along students who are lagging behind, and submit them to Riley, who could then ask for revisions.

The Senate passed a similar bill, with an important difference. Local school committees would be the authorities over those plans, not the education commissioner. Labor leaders are among those supporting the Senate approach. In a story this past week about the debate, Commonwealth Magazine quoted Beth Kontos, president of the state’s chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, as saying a “whole new level of bureaucracy … will be needed to review these plans” if they must go through Riley.

Practically speaking, there is no reason that local school committees and Riley couldn’t both have authority over how those plans are written. Their review is not mutually exclusive. And Riley’s involvement makes sense not just because of his experience in Lawrence. Basic accountability would dictate that he, or whomever succeeds him as commissioner, have some say over how the state’s money — which is being spent on behalf of taxpayers throughout the commonwealth — is applied at the local level.

Gov. Charlie Baker supports that approach, as does Riley himself, apparently. According to State House News Service, the commissioner said in a meeting this past week that he would “love to be able to have some oversight.”

Making that argument for more oversight during debate on the bill, Rep. Andy Vargas, D-Haverhill, noted that city councils, select boards and school committees may not always be best equipped to assess the educational needs of students — and, in the case of minority or low-income or special needs students, they may not always have their interests at heart.

“We should assume that each district has leadership that is just and will address achievement gaps,” said Vargas, according to Statehouse reporter Christian Wade’s account. “We should also verify.”

Trust but verify — it’s the right approach when billions of dollars and the education of hundreds of thousands of students are at stake. Hopefully legislative negotiators will settle their differences on the education bill soon, with some state-level accountability included in the final version of the bill.

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