News, schools, and views from a uniquely Lowell perspective

House break: Taking the time to get it right

Today’s Globe features a column, “Progress Adjourned,” in which Kevin Cullen sarcastically writes about not planning to write again, at least not formally, for the rest of the year, as a dig to state representatives taking a break until they reconvene in January. The Globe, a proponent in the charter-school movement, has pressed the issue, particularly the posturing between Governor Patrick and House Speaker DeLeo, as well as its own “get back to work” demand regarding the House delay in voting on the Education Reform Act the Senate passed last week. (Senate, No. 2216). Count me in the crowd who wants important decisions made in a timely fashion that impact the safety and welfare of residents, particularly those involving the budget and the education of our children. Those decisions must be based, however, on good information, adequate discussion, and an opportunity to hear from major stakeholders, which is why, as a school committee member, I am relieved we have time to learn more about the Senate version of the bill and discuss it with lawmakers.

The Senate Bill “An Act Relative to Education Reform” begins with this preamble: “Whereas, The deferred operation of this act would tend to defeat its purpose, which is to drive forthwith innovation into school districts and turnaround underperforming schools, therefore it is hereby declared to be an emergency law, necessary for the immediate preservation of the public convenience.” I spoke to several representatives on Friday who had not seen the final version of the bill, which is 75+ pages long and includes numerous reiterations of some 95 amendments, never mind begun to decipher what its impact could be on the public schools. If the next several weeks are devoted to looking closely at the many implications of the bill, researching ways to improve it, and listening to stakeholders with the ultimate goal of passing a bill to improve public education for all students in Massachusetts, a state known nationally for its exceptional school system, I am fully in favor of taking the time to get it right.

posted in Education, In the News, State Concerns | 0 Comments

School board group votes on charters and more

As the Lowell representative and one of about 350 delegates from districts across the state, I’m headed to the annual meeting of the Mass. Association of School Committees (MASC) today to vote on 11 resolutions regarding education reform. With controversy around removing the cap on charter schools (see yesterday’s Sun), the association’s position has added importance as lawmakers look to enact reform that makes sense for kids and communities during tough fiscal times. In terms of charter schools, the MASC resolution asks the state to restructure charter-school funding and student enrollment before lifting the cap. The resolution also requires charter schools to enroll student populations that reflect the overall community of students at risk—economically disadvantaged, English language learners, varying special needs, etc. (Current legislation only recommends charter schools recruit diverse populations.) In addition, the resolution requires charter school enrollments be audited to make sure their projections, on which funding is based, are accurate. Much of the debate is about money, as this quote from yesterday’s article illustrates: “The bill already appeared headed for troubled waters before debate began when the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association said a proposal to create a separate budget line item to fund charter school expansion would expose charter schools to uneven funding cuts in tight budget years.” (Welcome to my world.) The latest word from Boston is the legislature will not vote on education reform until it reconvenes in January, giving MASC and others time to vote, organize, and plan their advocacy. Check here for the delegate manual, and stay tuned!

posted in Education, State Concerns, school committee | 0 Comments

Equal time? Depends who asks

Not one to shirk media criticism when it’s warranted, I take space here to express my disappointment with WCAP Radio. Last week was a pretty exciting news week for me. House Bill 481—a bill I helped initiate a year ago—was heard before the Joint Committee on Education on Tuesday, Oct. 20. When I contacted our two media outlets, The Sun and WCAP, to cover this issue, which currently impacts our school budget by $1.3 million as well as the lives of 23 children forced out of district, I was told by our local radio station that it was too close to the election for me to come on-air. Mind you, this was only days after station co-owner Sam Poulten, a member of the Nashoba Vocational School board familiar with the bill, suggested I contact WCAP to discuss the issue, as well as only days after Councilor Kazanjian went on the Warren Shaw show to discuss his news—regarding a subpoena—for an hour!

Okay, they’re different issues—one is a hearing about changing a law to protect kids and save money while the other is a legal mandate to appear in court and give testimony to determine if any laws were broken. Most would agree, however, that House Bill 481 is as newsworthy as a subpoena, which leads me to conclude that getting on WCAP these days isn’t about equal time or even newsworthiness, but rather, it is about who is asking. Perhaps I should feel better that when I mentioned the unfair treatment to co-host Teddy Panos, he admitted to having to “tip toe” around the newsy-enough issue regarding time for the councilor. But the fact is, the more I think about it, the more annoyed I am.

By the way, The Sun did cover the issue before and after the hearing. Besides being news with far-reaching impact on costs and kids, House Bill 481 is not done yet; we now need speedy passage, which is where the bulk of my energy will be invested next.

posted in Campaign, In the News, Local Politics, Money Matters, State Concerns, school committee | 7 Comments

Advocacy at the state level

People who know me, know I’ve spent about 11 years working to improve our schools, first as an outspoken parent on the School Site Council at my son’s elementary school (he’s now a junior at LHS), then as a leader on the Citywide Parent Council, and finally, for the last six years, as a member of the Lowell School Committee. But yesterday was a first for me. Yesterday, I spent four hours in a crowded, hot room at the State House, listening to citizens express their concerns regarding 12 special education bills before the Joint Committee on Education. I was there to testify in support of House Bill 481, the sixth bill on the agenda, and although it was not the first time I had travelled to Boston to talk to lawmakers, it was the first time I spoke on a bill that I helped initiate. Today’s Sun has an article on the hearing, so I won’t go into details here except to add my perspective as someone with a vested interest in changing the law. There were lots of interested parties who spoke at the hearing—many special education advocates, parents, lawyers, and representatives from associations such as special education administrators, school committees, and superintendents. Each speaker was given three minutes, and it took four hours just to get halfway through the agenda. (We didn’t stay to hear the remaining six bills.) While waiting for my turn to speak, it struck me that as tiresome as it was to live through, the public hearing process was a significant part of a democratic society. Our right as citizens to address our government is a key component of representative government. It is not as important as voting, obviously, but definitely instrumental in shaping the type of government that results. Over dinner, I was happy to share my firsthand civics lesson with my children, who I know will become engaged and informed citizens themselves one day. Whether they will spend a day at the State House fighting for education reform, however, remains to be seen…

posted in Education, Money Matters, State Concerns | 0 Comments

Taking it to the State House

The Sun has an article in today’s paper about a hearing tomorrow at the State House before the Joint Committee on Education. I will travel to Boston with Assistant Superintendent Ann Murphy to speak in favor of House Bill 481. It won’t be the first time I’ve testified on issues before the state legislature that impact our public schools, but it will be the first time I support a bill that actually originated from Lowell—a brainchild of our own school administrators at my request for a suggestion for change that is good for kids and makes fiscal sense. (As the Lowell delegate for the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, I took the request to their convention last fall where it passed unanimously and became part of MASC resolutions before the legislature.)

Today, support for the bill reads like a Who’s Who list of local lawmakers. In addition to lead sponsor Representative Pam Richardson who formerly served on the Framingham School Committee, other sponsors include: Kevin Murphy, 18th Middlesex; Dave Nangle,17th Middlesex; Tom Golden, 16th Middlesex; College Garry, 36th Middlesex; Jennifer Callahan, 18th Worcester; Bruce Tarr, First Essex and Middlesex; and Thomas Conroy, 13th Middlesex.

Despite the fiscal crisis facing schools across the state, I wouldn’t be going to Boston tomorrow if I didn’t believe House Bill 481 is in the best interest of our most vulnerable students regardless of the savings. The cost in mandated private tuition has been significant, but more importantly, the current practice has stripped school districts of their right to have a voice in where their children should be educated once the Department of Children and Family Services (DCF) takes custody. Without that safety net, the true victims are DCF children unnecessarily forced to leave their friends and teachers behind. House Bill 481 gives districts the opportunity to advocate for keeping a child in his home school when that is appropriate, as well as reducing out-of-district costs significantly. (More on the bill after the hearing.)

posted in Education, Local Politics, Money Matters, State Concerns | 0 Comments

MCAS, AYP and the Governor

What does it mean when more than half the schools in Massachusetts fail to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) as the Globe reported yesterday? How about when schools in Acton, Billerica, Dracut and Wilmington join the list, as noted in The Sun? Perhaps it means all the schools are terrible and should be punished, as some would have us think; or maybe it means the standards are unrealistic—that most schools will fall short inevitably given our current system of measurement. The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires all students achieve proficiency by 2014. For example, if a school is at 85 percent proficiency today, each year three percent more students must achieve proficiency to reach 100 percent in five years. If the three percent isn’t reached for two consecutive years, the school has not made AYP. Subgroups (race, English learners, special education) must also make required progress, depending on their starting points, to get to 100 percent proficiency by 2014. Not only is this goal a difficult, moving target, each year different kids are tested and compared, and individual student progress is not tracked.

Consider these results in light of Governor Patrick’s recent education proposals, one of which is to lift the cap on charter schools. Aside from the fact that his plan does nothing to remedy charter-school funding inequities, more than half the state’s charter schools also have not made AYP for two consecutive years even though they have the advantages of “choosiness” regarding students and union-free staffing. In his plan to increase their number, the governor claims: “Only charter school operators with successful track records will be allowed to open or expand…and they must make meaningful efforts to attract, enroll, and retain low-income students, students scoring sub-proficient on the MCAS, English Language Learners, special-education students…” etc (my bold). As a school board member in an urban district where everyone is welcome, not due to “meaningful efforts” but because it’s the law, the language requiring charter schools make an effort to accept the same challenge is just too namby-pamby for me.

More on Patrick’s other plan, Readiness Schools, and Lowell student improvement in later posts.

posted in Education, State Concerns | 0 Comments

Go the speed limit, please

Junior drivers (under 18 years old) must travel the speed limit. If they don’t, the consequences they face are excessive and expensive, such as losing their license and being required to retake tests, courses, and fines costing more than a thousand dollars. Yet, drive on any of our highways and you will find most adults travel much faster than the posted speed—typically at least 10 miles faster. This presents junior drivers with a difficult choice: Travel with the flow of speeding traffic and risk losing your license, or travel at the posted speed and deal with cars (and trucks!) tailgating so close it’s terrifying as they pass you on both sides, all of which are very dangerous.

My son will take the road test for his driver’s license in two weeks. This test culminates a substantial financial investment as well as months of work to become a proficient driver, knowledgeable of state driving laws. The process entailed passing a written exam to get his driving permit ($30), completing a driver’s education course ($699) that included 30 hours of classroom instruction, 12 hours driving with an instructor and six hours observing another student, as well as 40 hours driving with an adult. My husband also had to attend a two-hour parent education class. The road test, which will be held at the Lowell RMV, will cost an additional $70. All told, the process of becoming an under-18 driver in the Commonwealth requires a significant investment of time and money (about $800, not counting gas). I’m not complaining about this. I’m also not upset about the state’s excessive crackdown of youthful violators (see this post). Whether it’s speeding or unlawfully carrying passengers before the required six months, junior drivers must know we are serious about these safety rules and that violators will be punished. Yet, it is difficult for them to follow the posted speed even by staying in the right lane, where cars are entering and exiting our highways at fast speeds. When general highway traffic is travelling at 70 mph, and people are speeding by on both sides and tailgating, how are young drivers supposed to follow the rules? Unfortunately, in another example of “Do as I say, not as I do,” these driving rules (similar to attitudes about alcohol) do very little to change harmful aspects of our culture. As adults, we all share some guilt and loss in that.

posted in City Life, State Concerns, Travel | 2 Comments

Will more school cuts be necessary?

By the end of last week, the results of the state budget via the Conference Committee’s Report were public although we’re still getting final numbers on what that means for the Lowell Public Schools. (See Dick’s post for a breakdown.) Because our school budget was based on $4.2 million from the stabilization fund and that number was reduced by $500,000, it’s not clear if the shortfall will have to come off the backs of Lowell schoolchildren. By the end of the day on Friday, we still didn’t know final numbers but heard that the superintendent was in conversations with the city manager regarding whether a state increase to the city would impact the school budget. (School administrators indicated that the city’s increase was $1.5 million, but I’m not sure what that’s based on or if it’s a final number.) Besides the possibility of the city providing additional school funds, there still exists the potential for concessions from school unions. After eliminating positions and programs worth more than $7.5 million, it’s safe to say there isn’t a committee member who wants to cut any deeper into the education of our children.

posted in Education, Money Matters, State Concerns | 2 Comments

Meet with Governor Patrick

Governor Deval Patrick continues to hold town-hall-style meetings across the state to speak with citizens on various topics. It is a great opportunity to see the man in a small group setting, hear his thoughts, and speak your concerns directly to him—why not experience democratic government at its best! (I attended one he held at the Pollard Memorial Library in Lowell a few months back when the focus was transportation reform and his proposed gas tax. I loved that he was here, pitching his ideas, and most importantly, listening to citizens, who represented our city well I might add.) Visit this site for more information about upcoming meetings. The following list notes some dates and locations for meetings currently scheduled:

  • Mon. June 22,  7:00 p.m.     Arlington
  • Mon. June 29,  6:30 p.m.     Lynn
  • Wed. July 8,    6:30 p.m.      Shrewsbury
  • Tues. July 14,  6:30 p.m.     Sharon
  • Thurs. July 16, 6:30 p.m.     Pembroke
  • Tues. July 21,  6:30 p.m.     Newburyport
  • Thurs. July 23, 6:30 p.m.     Boston
  • Wed. July 29,  6:30 p.m.      Wareham
  • Tues. Aug. 4,   6:30 p.m.    Groton

posted in State Concerns | 0 Comments

Driver competency must be priority

Today’s Boston Globe features a tragic story about a four-year old girl killed by an 89-year-old driver, again bringing to the forefront the whole debate regarding driver competency and the elderly. Is it unfair to begin periodic testing for drivers after a certain age, and if so, what age is appropriate and how often should their driving skills be reviewed? My perspective may be somewhat skewed as I recently registered my teenager for a $699 driver’s education class. The course includes 30 hours of classroom instruction, 12 hours of on-the-road driving with an instructor, as well as a two-hour parent class. This is all in preparation, of course, for taking the road test to become licensed to drive. If safety is to remain paramount, and if we consider driving a privilege rather than a right, there must be some mechanism for regular review of driving skills—starting at whatever age gains consensus with lawmakers.  (Perhaps every two years beginning at age 70?) The reality is that folks age differently—some, as well as their cars, take the wear and tear of life very well—as this interesting video demonstrates. That doesn’t preclude our need for a system that makes sure those behind the wheel are still competent to be there.

posted in In the News, State Concerns | 0 Comments

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