Monday, December 28, 2009

Education bill weakened, critics say: Right to fire teachers at failing schools axed

By James Vaznis | Globe Staff
December 16, 2009

Over the past two months, more than 20,000 teachers and their supporters have bombarded Beacon Hill with letters, e-mails, and telephone calls, urging legislators not to give superintendents unprecedented authority to ignore union rules as they overhaul troubled schools.

So far the lobbying has paid off. The education bill approved by the Senate last month eliminated several controversial proposals, including a provision that would have allowed superintendents to dismiss any teacher at a failing school regardless of job performance.

Now, as the fiercest education debate in 16 years heads to the House, groups of business executives, parents, and school leaders say the bill has been so watered down that it will do little to help improve the education of students in the state’s worst schools. Instead, they say it puts the interest of teachers above their students.

“There is no leader of any organization that could make effective changes with those kinds of handcuffs,’’ said Linda Noonan, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education. “It’s almost like a bad bill would be worse than no bill.’’

With House Democrats slated to caucus on the bill today, the unions have recently been pushing for more changes in meetings with key state representatives. The Boston Teachers Union also asked its members this week to hand out tens of thousands of fliers printed in English, Spanish, and other languages to parents outside their school buildings, in hope of enlisting their support.

Meanwhile, organizations that are worried about the union activities, including a statewide parent group and another that represents Boston parents, are urging their members to call state representatives to tell them not to accede to union demands. Mayor Thomas M. Menino also met with House leaders this week to stress the importance of allowing superintendents to convert failing schools into in-district charter schools without seeking union consent.

Leaders of the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts defended the changes they championed, saying they preserve hard-fought workplace protections. They disputed assertions that teachers were acting selfishly.

“As a teacher, your life is devoted to helping kids,’’ said Anne Wass, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. “A teacher’s working conditions are a child’s learning conditions.’’

When the Senate approved the bill after two days of intense debate last month, there was a widespread sense of optimism that it would provide the tools necessary to help children in urban schools that have long struggled with low test scores. The Senate sped through the approval so Massachusetts could meet a mid-January deadline to apply for federal stimulus money that will be distributed among states that have made significant steps to improve their worst schools.

But in the weeks since that vote, serious concerns have emerged that several of the last-minute amendments approved during the end-of-session marathon could make it nearly impossible to make any meaningful changes in struggling school districts.

Not only did the amended bill considerably weaken the powers that would be given to superintendents, but it also altered a provision that could have doubled the number of charter school seats in Boston, Lawrence, and other cities where the quality of public education has long been a concern.

With the state confronting yet another year of tight finances because of sluggish state revenue, Governor Deval Patrick and other leaders say it is critical that Massachusetts passes a bill so it can secure funding under President Obama’s Race to the Top competition, which could yield $250 million for Massachusetts.

The federal program calls on states to pursue an array of initiatives, including taking a harder line when evaluating teacher job performance, getting rid of ineffective teachers, and expanding the number of charter schools, which in Massachusetts almost always employ nonunion teachers.

Paul Reville, the state’s education secretary, said he remains optimistic that a substantive bill will get to the governor next month.

“There is a lot of rhetoric designed to influence the next stage of the process,’’ Reville said. “It’s not time yet to despair about the bill and to make global pronouncements about the extent to which the bill may have been watered down. Is it a perfect bill? No. Can we strengthen it as it moves onto the House? Yes.’’

Reville said he was hoping to work out compromises that would provide superintendents the power they need to overhaul schools while respecting the rights of teachers.

The teachers unions - which can wield considerable influence in the Democrat-controlled Legislature, particularly by providing manpower and some donations in election years - was particularly effective in making two key changes in the bill.

Senator Gale Candaras, Democrat of Wilbraham, introduced the amendment that limited a proposal that would have given superintendents the ability to remove teachers.

Under the amended bill, a superintendent would be able to dismiss a teacher only for good cause and would have to prove that the teacher’s job performance played a role in the school’s underperforming status. The teacher would then have the right to appeal that decision in a new expedited arbitration process.

In the second case, Senator Kenneth J. Donnelly, Democrat of Arlington, sponsored a change that eliminated a proposal that would have given superintendents the ability to unilaterally impose work rule changes at a failing school when negotiations with the teachers union hit a stalemate. Under his amendment, that matter would instead go through an expedited arbitration process.

Both amendments passed overwhelmingly, with most opposition coming from Republicans.

“I felt in large measure that a significant portion of the bill scapegoated teachers,’’ said Candaras, who believes that widespread poverty is a more significant contributor to failing schools. “These people who devote their lives to teaching in these schools deserve at least a hearing.’’

Donnelly could not be reached for comment.

Critics say the amendments would enable local teacher unions to throw up roadblocks that could deter overhaul efforts. Although the bill sets up short time lines for arbitration, they say that time lines are often not followed in union negotiations.

Unions consider these two amendments a victory for worker rights. On its website, the teachers association is encouraging members to write thank you notes to the supportive senators, while the teachers federation warns on its website that the changes still do not go far enough to address its concerns.

One additional area that the unions intend to fight in the House is a provision that would change state law so school districts could open their own charter schools without union approval.

Representative Charles A. Murphy, chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, said his committee is looking at the changes and myriad other issues as it puts together a House version of the bill.

The committee’s resulting bill could go through substantial changes on the House floor, where representatives are expected to contend with between 300 and 400 amendments. Like the Senate, the House will be under a tight deadline to approve its legislation.

“I’m sure there are parts that will remain and other parts that won’t,’’ said Murphy, adding that committee has been working on its bill since Thanksgiving. “I don’t want to show our hands.’’

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