Holding DeVos Accountable

This letter to the editor originally appeared in the Milford Daily News

Why was a congresswoman representing the Boston suburbs making national news about a private school in Indiana?

Rep. Katherine Clark took a stand for the civil rights of children and families in questioning Education Secretary Betsy DeVos during a hearing on Wednesday at the Capitol. In interrogating DeVos on the Trump school voucher program, Rep. Clark asked the secretary a simple question: is there any instance in which a discriminatory admissions policy should preclude a school from receiving federal funding?

Betsy DeVos refused to answer, which is shocking even for a member of the Trump cabinet.

Rep. Clark had specifically cited a Christian school in Indiana that receives state dollars through a voucher program but reserves the right to deny admission to students “from a family where there is homosexual or bisexual activity, or practicing alternate gender identity.”

Rep. Clark asked, “If Indiana applies for funding, will you stand up that this school be open to all students?”

DeVos responded with platitudes about parents knowing the best choice for their child, failing to come up with a single example of a discriminatory policy that would, in her eyes, merit withholding funding. Rep. Clark said she was shocked by this answer. We should all be shocked.

Democratic leaders, including Presidents Obama and Clinton, have promoted increasingly quality public school options like charter schools because choice means nothing without strong accountability for both school performance and civil rights. The model of school choice that Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump advocate, in which schools are free to discriminate and harm students without federal oversight, is not just bad policy. It is shameful that a sitting education secretary would so dismissive of the federal government’s role of safeguarding civil rights in education.

Katherine Clark is doing the important work of holding Secretary DeVos accountable for her reckless approach to education policy. As Democrats who support both expanding high-quality education options for all students and ensuring that those options are accountable for civil rights and student outcomes, we stand with Rep. Clark and applaud her for defending the civil rights of all students and families.

Liam Kerr


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Yes on Fair Share

In November 2018, Massachusetts voters will have the opportunity to vote on the Fair Share Amendment, a measure to reduce the impact of the Commonwealth’s regressive flat income tax in favor of an additional 4% tax on individual incomes over $1 million. The increased revenue will flow to education and transportation. As an organization that champions high-quality public education for all children, DFER is proud to support the Fair Share Amendment.

The Fair Share Amendment represents a step forward in the vision of education policy that has driven Massachusetts’ success for decades. In 1993, the Massachusetts legislature passed an education reform law that substantially increased education funding in exchange for schools using high standards and implementing a strong accountability system to measure progress against those standards. Updated in 2010 with help from President Obama’s Race to the Top competitive grant initiative, this “Grand Bargain” in education policy has made Massachusetts the country’s leader in K-12 education. By funding schools well, targeting that funding to students most in need, and building a strong standards-and-accountability system to ensure this investment improves student learning, Massachusetts has driven improvements in student outcomes across the board.

Looking back on the Education Reform Act’s enactment, the education commissioner at the time said that “for the first time in the history of the commonwealth, the law really addressed a significant number of issues in schools, with the idea that no matter where a child came from, he or she should have the opportunity of a quality education, and the state should fund it.” The two-pronged approach of revenue and reform was crucial to this endeavor: “If we're going to give you money, we said we're going to make sure that [students] were taught the standards.”

To build on the Commonwealth’s education success, both sides of the Grand Bargain must be kept. The increased state aid to districts agreed to in 1993 is disbursed using a formula that calculates the adequate spending level for a given district. When districts are unable to fund this amount, the state makes up the difference. Assumptions in the original formula greatly underestimated rising costs of certain education expenditures, particularly in healthcare and special education. To truly fulfill its obligation to districts under the Grand Bargain, the Commonwealth needs additional revenue to support an updated formula.

The Fair Share Amendment offers an opportunity to secure that revenue. It also does so in a just and progressive manner. Over the past several decades, the vast majority of economic gains have gone to top earners—which is one of many reasons why Massachusetts suffers from greater income inequality than do most states. It only makes sense to ask these top earners to fuel education—an engine of the economy that has benefited them greatly. As an organization of progressive Democrats who believe in government’s ability to improve students’ educational outcomes—and their lives—DFER sees the Fair Share Amendment as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make good on the Commonwealth’s commitment to providing high-quality education for all children.

Just as we keep the promise to adequately fund our public schools, the “reform” side of the Grand Bargain must also be kept—meaning that education funding must be spent accountably and equitably. New revenue should be targeted to districts and students most in need—especially given the Commonwealth’s persistent achievement gaps and the work remaining to close them. Proven programs that advance equity—like quality pre-K—should be prioritized. And we must defend the Commonwealth’s standards and accountability system, which allows us to make education decisions based on objective data about student outcomes. The accountability system allows us to measure the impact of state policies, replicate strategies that work, and keep students and districts from falling through the cracks. It is an essential tool in driving funding where it will have the greatest impact on student learning.

DFER supports the Fair Share Amendment because more funding is needed to ensure a high-quality education for all Massachusetts students, and we support progressive tax policies to generate that funding. As we campaign for the measure, we will point to the success of Massachusetts’ Grand Bargain and the need to champion all of its elements.


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Mass. teachers union snubs National Teacher of the Year

This article originally appeared in Commonwealth Magazine

By Michael Jonas. 

SYDNEY CHAFFEE WAS WELCOMED to the White House last month. She was honored at an event in Boston by the governor and the state education commissioner. But the first Massachusetts educator ever named National Teacher of Year was given the cold shoulder by the state’s largest teachers union.

Delegates at the Massachusetts Teachers Association annual state convention last Saturday voted down a motion to “publicly and formally congratulate and recognize Sydney Chaffee” on receiving the award.

The motion to recognize a nationally-recognized classroom instructor from Boston would appear to be the most uncontroversial proposal that could be brought forward to a gathering of Massachusetts teachers. What turned the resolution into a contested issue at the convention is the fact that Chaffee teaches at a charter school.

Chaffee is a 9th grade humanities teacher at Codman Academy Charter Public School in Dorchester, which seems to have everything to do with the teachers union turning down a call to pay tribute to her achievement.

Charter school teachers are generally not unionized, and that is the case at Codman Academy. It is believed to be the first time the National Teacher of the Year award went to a charter school teacher.

The Mass. Teachers Association has taken a strong stand against charter schools, including serving as the main funder of last year’s successful effort to defeat a statewide ballot question that would have raised the cap on charter schools.

The motion to congratulate Chaffee was put forward by Peter Mili, a retired Cambridge math teacher and longtime active MTA member. “I was disappointed that, as an organization of educators, we couldn’t for the moment put aside the charter school issue and national politics and just recognize this individual for her accomplishments and her work with children,” said Mili.

He said people speaking against the motion raised everything from the fact that Chaffee taught in a charter school to concerns about national education policy under President Trump and Betsy DeVos, his education secretary.

Mili said he does not know Chaffee and was not trying to make any statement on the broader charter school debate that has roiled the education waters in the state. Mili said he had a “No on 2” lawn sign in front of his house during last year’s campaign and shared the union’s concern about charter school expansion.

Mili said the issue should be “not so much where she worked – the structure of the school she taught in – but the fact that she’s a teacher being recognized for really good work with Massachusetts children.”

Mili said he emailed MTA president Barbara Madeloni several times in the weeks leading up to the convention to urge that Chaffee be invited to address the annual gathering, but never got a response.

A spokesman for the MTA said Madeloni was not available to comment.

A year ago, Chaffee was named Massachusetts Teacher of the Year. In April, she was chosen for the national award, which is given annually by the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Paul Toner, a former MTA president, said the union has always invited the state teacher of the year to offer remarks at the annual meeting. “It’s unfortunate that the politics surrounding charter schools led to this outcome,” said Toner. “Sydney is a teacher, not a politician. We should respect all of our teachers.”

Liam Kerr, director of the Massachusetts chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, a pro-charter organization that also advocates for increased funding for district schools, called it “middle-school-bully” tactics to shun Chaffee and not invite her to speak at the state convention.

Madeloni has staked out a hard line against charter schools and has also pushed for an end to the use of high-stakes tests in Massachusetts schools.

Although Chaffee was not invited by Madeloni to speak at the state convention, the MTA’s parent union, the National Education Association, has asked her to speak in June at its annual convention, which will be held this year in Boston.

“It is our tradition to invite the National Teacher of the Year to the annual meeting of the National Education Association regardless of whether or not he or she has been an NEA member,” NEA president Lily Eskelsen García said in a statement.

Last month, García addressed the state teachers of the year from all 50 states, who were invited to Washington and honored at the celebration where Chaffee was recognized as the national winner.

“Sydney, we adore you,” García said, in a videotape of her remarks. “We all have the same heart that says teaching is not our job, it’s our cause. It’s a social justice cause. It’s how we intend to change the world.”

Paul Reville, the former state secretary of education, said the Mass. teachers vote was a sign of how out of touch the union’s leadership is with the real needs of students.

“MTA’s decision to disrespectfully dismiss the Massachusetts Teacher of the Year is just one more indication of MTA leadership’s obsession with quashing charters, choice, and stifling any reform that threatens to disturb the status quo,” Reville said. “The problem is that the status quo is still not working for so many students. This consistent opposition to change takes us backward while guaranteeing that inequities will persist.”

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said excellent teachers should be recognized no matter what type of school they are in.

“I support all teachers working to educate students in our city, regardless if they serve at a private school, charter school, or public school,” Walsh said in a statement. “As a Dorchester resident working with a Dorchester school, Ms. Chaffee embodies the strength of our communities, and represents the best of Boston.”

Chaffee declined to respond directly to the MTA vote. “I look forward to the opportunity to continue collaborating with and learning from all teachers this year to ensure that our students get the education they deserve,” she said in an email.

As National Teacher of the Year, Chaffee will take a leave from her teaching post in Dorchester and spend the year traveling nationally and internationally as a spokeswoman for the teaching profession.

Thabiti Brown, her principal at Codman Academy, also declined to address the MTA vote. Instead, he emphasized in an interview the degree to which teachers in the area around the Dorchester school work collaboratively to improve their skills and to aid students, regardless of whether they are in district or charter schools.

“It is way more the norm than not for colleagues across district and charter lines to work together,” said Brown. “To Sydney’s credit, she’s a teacher at the end of the day and she’s excited to tell the stories of strong teachers across the country. That’s why she’s a winner.”

Kerr, the Democrats for Education Reform leader, said teachers unions have long complained that charter schools are not fulfilling one of their original intents – to share best practices with district schools that they have developed under the more flexible structure charters operate with. It is ironic, he said, that the MTA would not have Chaffee come speak to their convention.

“The 110,000-member union has decided they’re worlds away from wanting to learn from the National Teacher of the Year,” he said. “They can’t even say, ‘good job.

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Rosenberg: Put ed policy on hold until tax vote

This article originally appeared in Commonwealth Magazine

By Michael Jonas. 

EDUCATION POLICY INITIATIVES may take a back seat in the state Senate to a focus on boosting school funding through the proposed “millionaire’s tax” on high earners.

Senate President Stan Rosenberg told an education group on Tuesday afternoon that his priority is pushing the proposal for a new income tax, which supporters want to have appear on the 2018 statewide ballot, and he worries that other education policy debates, including on a bill supported by the state’s largest teachers union, could hurt the effort.

“My opinion at this point is that we focus on the fair share ballot question that’s coming up in November of ’18, because that $2 billion or so that will be raised will be the major source for funding the future of education,” said Rosenberg. “And anything that distracts from that debate and divides us and doesn’t allow us to move forward successfully on that is, I think, a mistake.”

Rosenberg’s comments came in a question-and-answer session following remarks he delivered to the Massachusetts chapter of Democrats for Education Reform.

He was responding to a question asking his view on a bill supported by the Massachusetts Teachers Association that calls for a three-year moratorium on the use of high-stakes tests, including the 10th grade exam that students must currently pass to graduate from high school. Some view the legislation as the first step in an effort by the teachers union to dismantle the state’s system of education standards and accountability.


Rosenberg’s answer was not what the union wanted to hear. His comment likely pleased many at the luncheon event at the Omni Parker House – Democrats for Education Reform has been a strong supporter of the accountability framework the state put in place with the 1993 Education Reform Act.

But it also suggests Rosenberg will not be keen on considering other legislation that reform advocates have said would strengthen school accountability. He was asked, for example, about bills to grant broader autonomy over the length of the school day and teacher hiring to more low-performing schools.

The legislation, which has been filed several times in recent years, would extend school-based powers now given to the lowest-performing schools to those ranked in the category just above the bottom. Rep. Alice Peisch, the House education committee cochair – who was in the audience – has sponsored one version of the legislation.

Rosenberg begged off, jokingly asking an aide what his position is on the issue. “You’re over my head right now,” he then said about the bill. “Suffice it is say I’m open to hearing arguments for sensible change anywhere it needs to be made.”

But Rosenberg suggested he is not inclined to consider big changes in education policy until the millionaire’s tax is settled. The proposed constitutional amendment would place an additional tax of 4 percentage points on individual income that exceeds $1 million. It is estimated that the added levy, which supporters want earmarked for education and transportation, would generate $1 to $2 billion per year.

To appear on the 2018 ballot, the proposal must garner at least 50 votes this year or next in a constitutional conventional – a combined House-Senate session of the state’s 200 lawmakers.

Rosenberg talked about the state’s overall progress in education, saying the education reform effort has made a difference, but that progress has been at a standstill on one important indicator.

“Although we’ve made significant progress, we are stalled on third grade reading tests,” he said. “We have not moved the needle in spite of the great work.”

Studies have shown that third grade reading proficiency is a strong predictor of students’ success through high school and beyond. More than 40 percent of Massachusetts third graders are not proficient in reading.

Rosenberg’s reference to stalled reading scores served as an introduction to comments about the Kids First initiative, an ambitious Senate agenda unveiled last week. The Senate plans to propose a set of education-related priorities that reach from pre-natal services through post-secondary education and training. The multiyear effort would cost more than $1 billion over several years, according an account of last week’s rollout.

Attention in education policy circles is increasingly turning to concern about longer-term outcomes. Higher high school graduation rates and greater rates of college enrollment are not necessarily translating into degree completion. The result can leave young adults in a bad hole with no degree but lots of student debt.

Rosenberg, whose Senate district includes the University of Massachusetts flagship campus in Amherst, has been a vocal advocate for UMass and the public higher education system. But when asked about the idea of greater accountability for outcomes being placed on high schools or public higher education institutions, he again left the education crowd with little to chew on, saying he would give the issues some thought.

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Kerr: Senate President Accountable

This letter to the editor originally appeared in the Boston Herald. 

By Liam Kerr

As the host of the event at which state Senate President Stan Rosenberg “gently warned education reformers to pick their battles,” I disagree with the assertion in the editorial that his approach puts no premium on accountability (“Lesson in accountability,” May 12).

The Senate president’s push for education funding is in line with Massachusetts’ proven formula of education reform: increased revenue, high standards, and a strong accountability system to ensure those standards are met. Massachusetts invests resources where the needs are greatest and the programs are most effective — like in Lawrence, where graduation rates have jumped from 42 percent to 74 percent since the state intervened.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association bill, which would impose a moratorium on accountability, poses a threat to the state’s education success. To equate Rosenberg’s approach with the MTA’s isn’t fair. TheSenate president specifically praised the state’s accountability system in his remarks.

The MTA may well be out of touch, but the Senate president is not. Massachusetts residents want to fully fund schools, and they also want to ensure that money is spent well. The Fair Share Amendment, with strong accountability, will be crucial to doing just that.

— Liam Kerr, state director, Democrats for Education Reform, Boston

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Herald Editorial: Lesson in Accountability

This article originally appeared in the Boston Herald

By the Herald editorial staff. 

There appears to be a slight disagreement on Beacon Hill over whether lawmakers should invest more of their energy into campaigning for a tax increase on millionaires -- or into a bill that would toss out the MCAS test and guarantee that kids get recess every day.

Can the sponsors of these measures really be this out of touch?

At a briefing with the Massachusetts Teachers Association on Wednesday, the State House News Service reported, Sen. Michael Rush made a push for his bill, which would implement the 2015 recommendations of a commission that said Massachusetts is under-investing in education to the tune of $2 billion.

Along with a big funding boost, the bill would effectively eliminate the concept of accountability, which over the past two decades has helped to ensure that students in Massachusetts outperform their peers in other states, and that taxpayers are getting a quality return on their investment in education. Among other things, the bill would suspend the MCAS graduation requirement and forbid the use of student test performance to evaluate teachers.

But the day before the Wednesday briefing, Senate President Stan Rosenberg had gently warned education reformers to pick their battles, the News Service reported, as the campaign for a ballot question that would boost education funding heats up. That initiative calls for imposing a 4 percent income tax surcharge on individual earnings above $1 million, with the revenue intended for education (and transportation, too).

We suspect Rosenberg may support the meat of Rush's bill -- but isn't thrilled at the idea of going 10 rounds over mandatory recess, or giving fired teachers more tools to fight their termination, while at the same time trying to convince the public to give Beacon Hill billions more to spend on schools.

In the end neither approach puts a premium on accountability. That's a standard Massachusetts can't afford to weaken.

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Walz: Moratorium on testing is no way to measure how well money is spent

This letter to the editor originally appeared in the Boston Globe

IN “THE voters were clear: Support public schools” (Opinion, March 15), Barbara Madeloni,president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, supports more money for schools through the Fair Share Amendment, which would raise taxes on millionaires, and a moratorium on using assessment tests to hold schools accountable for academic results.

Madeloni wants more money with no way to measure whether it is well spent. This is bad for kids, and it’s a lousy way to persuade people to vote for more taxes.

As a progressive Democrat, I believe public schools should be well funded and support the Fair Share Amendment. I also believe our government should be accountable for the quality of its services.

Voters will be loath to support the Fair Share Amendment unless they are confident that the money it generates will be well spent by schools. Massachusetts has large achievement gaps between wealthy and poor students; doing more of the same, but with more money and less transparency, is a disaster for kids.

Madeloni curiously uses national survey data to support the claim that Massachusetts voters oppose using test results to measure school effectiveness. Fortunately, MassINC recently polled Massachusetts voters about this, and found that 76 percent of Massachusetts voters see test scores as either “very important” or “somewhat important” sources of information regarding school quality.

Voters rightly want tax dollars spent to improve schools. They deserve to see measurable results on that investment.

Martha M. Walz


Walz is a former state representative and former cochair of the Joint Committee on Education.

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Springfield "Empowerment Zone" Model Considered for Statewide Expansion

This article originally appeared at Masslive.com

By Shira Shoenberg.

A unique educational model in Springfield may be replicated statewide -- if some lawmakers and the Massachusetts governor have their way.

The Springfield Empowerment Zone is a partnership between the state, Springfield school officials and the teachers' union in which eight public middle schools are overseen by a board and granted more autonomy to make decisions in areas like hiring, scheduling, budgeting and curriculum.

"I viewed this as a compelling model because this provides the ability to make changes while investing in the school system and maintaining local control of the school system," said state Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, who sponsored a bill, SD.1209, to expand empowerment zones statewide.

One important piece to getting the bill passed, however, will be ensuring that the model outlined in the bill is similar enough to the Springfield model to get consensus. "The key is any legislation must specifically model the Springfield deal, because that was key to making it work, with an administration, teachers, unions. We all collaborated and worked together," said Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno.

For now, the bill faces opposition from the powerful Massachusetts Teachers Association, whose representatives says the bill would remove control of schools from local officials and put it more in the hands of the state.

"There's not a partnership element to this model," said MTA President Barbara Madeloni. "There is an appointed board, so it undermines democratically elected school committees."

Although the bill is one of thousands that have been filed, Gov. Charlie Baker gave it a boost when he mentioned it during his State of the Commonwealth address, indicating that the administration supports the move as a way to improve education statewide. "These zones create more flexibility in schools and allow educators to make the changes necessary to provide a better learning environment for our kids," Baker said in his address.

Baker said he will be looking to Springfield schools as a model for how to assist struggling schools around the state.

The Springfield Empowerment Zone was started two years ago, when three middle schools faced the threat of a state takeover due to poor performance. Chris Gabrieli, CEO of the education consulting nonprofit Empower Schools, approached local officials about a new education model, similar to work that was done in Lawrence after a state takeover.

The result was a structure in which state and local officials share control of the schools through an appointed board that includes four state officials and three local officials. The educators in each school are given more flexibility than they would have under a normal district-run union contract to change things like the length of the school day or the curriculum.

Chirs Gabrieli, chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Education, agrees with Gov. Charlie Baker that the Springfield Empowerment Zone presents a a model program for addressing struggling schools.

"Most of what's happening in Massachusetts or the rest of country is either the district says this is what we're going do and the state approves, or the state takes complete control and does it its way," said Gabrieli, who is now chairman of the Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership. "This is unique in the country in that it's a joint venture of the state and district, both of whom are responsible for these kids."

Sarno said the structure combines the best of the public school system with the best of the charter school system.

"We all collaborated and worked together in really establishing best practices of what we do very well in our public system but then having the ability to have the flexibility of charter-type aspects of more autonomy," Sarno said.

Springfield School Committee member Denise Hurst said the empowerment zone works because "it provides districts and families with an alternative, and it allows districts to have autonomy around instruction and learning time and how money gets allocated and spent." For example, Springfield middle schools have created new electives and longer school days.


"We've set up operating conditions that allow teachers and school principals to take full ownership of what needs to happen to help children succeed," Gabrieli said.

Gabrieli said the empowerment zone has made Springfield a national model. The only similar zone so far is in Denver, also established with help from Gabrieli's group.

The discussion over improving district schools comes after voters resoundingly rejected a ballot question that would have expanded access to charter schools.

The day after the election, Baker pointed to empowerment zones as a way to improve education and close the achievement gap between black or Hispanic students and white students without charter school expansion.

Baker pointed to Springfield's use of an "empowerment zone" as one example of policies that can be used to improve education now that voters rejected a ballot question to increase the number of charter schools in Massachusetts.

Gabrieli said the bill could be seen as a response to the message voters sent. "The voters made clear last year that they they want to fix the systems we have," he said.

But some education policy experts say the proposal has been discussed by lawmakers behind the scenes for the last year, even before the ballot question's defeat, since even if there were increased charter school access more would still have to be done to improve district schools.

Schools are ranked from level one, the best schools, and level five, those schools that can be taken over by the state for poor performance. Lesser's bill would let districts with a level three school establish "innovation partnership zones" through a locally initiated effort. The state could establish these zones at level four and five schools as an alternative to existing turnaround procedures, such as a full state takeover. The schools would then have flexibility in setting curriculum, budget, schedule, staffing and other areas.

Several Springfield officials said the reason the Springfield model worked was because the union, city and state all cooperated, and the challenge will be ensuring similar collaboration happens in any new zones.

Madeloni said the bill as drafted is different from the Springfield model, because it does not require the same level of partnership. The board governing the zones would be appointed, unlike traditionally elected school committees, and would not be required to include educators or municipal employees. "It's about taking public funds and putting it into the oversight of private hands," Madeloni said.

She said the bill ensures that the most powerful person overseeing the zone is the state education commissioner, since for the lower performing schools the commissioner has authority to initiate a zone. She worried that the model relies too much on testing to measure performance.

"We have a system of democratically elected school committees and collective bargaining in which people can come together and create schools that make sense to them," Madeloni said. "This puts the power back in the commissioner's hands."

On the other side of the issue is Liam Kerr, Massachusetts state director for Democrats for Education Reform, which supported charter school expansion and now supports expansion of empowerment zones. He noted that a 2010 education reform bill allowed for new ways to improve school districts. "This is one of the ways that's working," Kerr said.

Kerr said the legislation seems to be about creating a model that brings people together while also having accountability. "It's another tool for districts who have schools that are struggling academically," Kerr said.

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This Teachers Union Might Have More in Common with President Trump than They Think

This article originally appeared at EducationPost.org.

By Marty Walz.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) recently rejected the opportunity to offer congratulations to the National Teacher of the Year, Sydney Chaffee. Why? For the sole reason that she teaches in a charter public school. Breaking with past practice, neither would it invite her to speak to its members.

Is the charter-district war so intractable that professionals can’t offer praise to a peer who educates children exceptionally well or even listen to her ideas about good teaching?

My worst fears have been realized.

In 2009, President Obama challenged states to change their laws so public schools, district and charter, could do a better job educating children. Massachusetts answered the call. As the co-chair of the state legislature’s education committee, I helped craft the Achievement Gap Act, which gave Massachusetts new tools to reach the children being left behind in traditional district schools.

I heard school committee members and union leaders complain about charter schools not willing to share their best practices. Charter school leaders said principals and superintendents weren’t open to changing their practices or were unwilling to pursue revisions to rules that prevented them from implementing what was working so well in charter schools.

Weary of adults who struggled to even speak with one another in good faith, we included a provision in the January 2010 law that put the burden on charter schools to share ideas with districts. We made such sharing of best practices a factor when the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education considered whether to renew their charters. We hoped the high stakes would change the incentives and get folks to collaborate.

Since then, we’ve seen genuine efforts to bridge the divide, many generated by the Boston Compact, a collaboration of district, charter and Catholic schools. Boston Public Schools and Boston charter schools have completed professional development to support English-language learners, launched joint career fairs to recruit more Black and Latino teachers, aligned bell times to save millions of dollars in busing costs, and teachers visit each other’s schools looking for best practices.

In Lawrence, the state-appointed receiver invited several charter schools to help manage struggling district schools, start an alternative high school that focuses on dropouts, partner on an early childhood learning center, and replicate a successful tutoring program.

This is what is possible when school leaders and teachers act in the best interest of children.


We need more of these examples—adults who set aside their differences to improve their own skills and, by extension, their schools. Our focus should be on children and how we best meet their educational needs—whether that’s in a district, charter or parochial school.

If MTA members won’t even vote in support of a congratulatory resolution, I wonder if we can ever expect widespread efforts by district teachers to learn from their charter school colleagues. If MTA members refuse to listen to the National Teacher of the Year even for a few minutes, there’s no way they’ll take feedback from a charter school teacher on effective teaching strategies.

Under the leadership of Barbara Madeloni, the Massachusetts Teachers Association has moved aggressively to reshape public education in spite of the state’s track record of success. Massachusetts routinely finishes first on a variety of educational measures and is the envy of the nation.

That success masks a dark reality for too many students, especially those in urban, low-income families. Massachusetts has the third largest achievement gap in the nation based on family income, a gap that is growing. Massachusetts has some of the best charter schools in the nation, and urban charter schools are closing achievement gaps, often dramatically.

The MTA’s vote rips the veneer off the idea that district teachers want to learn from charter school teachers, if only charter school teachers would be more cooperative.

Maybe those charter school leaders back in 2009 were right about their district peers—maybe most district school teachers really are unwilling to learn from anyone working in a charter school and that collaborations are the exception not the rule.

Rather than being role models as teachers should be, MTA members demonstrated the exact opposite of what parents teach their children about good sportsmanship. In sports, players know they will congratulate members of the winning side at the end of the game. They also know they’ll congratulate a player who demonstrates exceptional skill, no matter whose team the player is on.

I’d like to think the MTA’s approach isn’t our new normal, that we have not totally ceded the middle ground where reasonable people can find common cause. But in an era when President Trump insults with impunity and refuses to show even the slightest respect to someone he disagrees with, the Massachusetts Teachers Association may have more in common with the president than it thinks.

Martha M. Walz served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives from 2005-2013. 

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Kerr: Real Democrats support charter schools

This op-ed originally appeared on CommonWealth

WITH JUST DAYS before America selects a successor to President Obama, a longstanding kerfuffle has broken into the open on his longstanding, crystal clear opposition to artificial caps on public charter schools.

An aggressive form of this denial came to the forefront of Massachusetts politics this summer when, after the Democratic State Committee rushed a vote without discussion oppose ballot Question 2 to expand charter school access, the state Senate president’s communications director tweeted: “This just in: Democrats in Massachusetts turn out to be real Democrats after all, vote to oppose increasing charter schools.”

At Democrats for Education Reform, we missed the memo about Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton not being “real Democrats.”

To dispel any doubts that charter schools have Democratic support, you need only look to the bench of national Democratic leaders who are champions of high-quality public charter schools. The first major backer of charter schools was none other than Al Shanker, the progressive American Federation of Teachers union leader who himself argued for autonomy, statewide accountability, competition, and no arbitrary caps on growth in charter schooling. The first charter school law in the country, in Minnesota, was spearheaded by a Democratic state senator. As the charter movement grew nationally, it attracted the support of such progressive icons as Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota; former Democratic National Committee chair and Vermont governor Howard Dean; Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York; Congressman George Miller of California; Martin Luther King III; and Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman.

The first national charter school law was advanced by Democratic President Bill Clinton. That law, the federal Charter School Program of 1994, jumpstarted a Democratic trend of replicating high-quality charter schools. By the time Clinton left office, 1,700 charter schools were open in 36 states. In a 2012 speech delivered to the public charter network KIPP, Clinton explained why he supports the spirit of innovation behind the charter school model: “Innovation is not just coming up with a new idea, innovation is rapidly replicating excellence,” he said. That kind of excellence is exactly why Clinton said, in the same speech, “I wish there were 10 times or 100 times as many KIPP schools because you have proved that you can replicate excellence.”


President Obama took up Clinton’s mantle, making the expansion of high-quality charter school seats part of his enduring legacy. In 2008, Obama promised to double funding for high-quality, public charter schools, and he has made good on that promise, especially in Massachusetts. In 2010, Obama’s Race to the Top competitive grant program tied increased education funding to targeted reform measures like increased district accountability and expansion of high-quality charter seats. “I called for a doubling of our investment in charter schools,” Obama said, “so that students and parents have choices within the public school system, because I believe in public schools.”

The legislation that Massachusetts passed to secure that grant doubled the cap on charter schools in the state’s lowest-performing districts, Nationally, Obama has shown his support for public charter schools by proclaiming National Charter School Week and has called himself a “big proponent of charter schools.” His first secretary of education, Arne Duncan, has endorsed Question 2 in Massachusetts, as has his current Secretary of Education John King – a founder of Roxbury Prep Charter School – who said that “any arbitrary cap on the growth of high performing charters is a mistake.”

On November 8, Hillary Clinton will be elected the next pro-charter school president. Secretary Clinton has spent her whole career as a progressive education reformer. While working for the Children’s Defense Fund, she came to New Bedford to make sure all children had access to a quality education. She engineered standards-based accountability in Arkansas when she was first lady there, and she was instrumental in passing Bill Clinton’s charter school law when he was president. Symbolically, the videoannouncing her candidacy for president featured a woman who was moving out of her neighborhood just so her daughter could “belong to a better school.” In July, Clinton was booed at a National Education Association convention for saying “whether they are traditional public schools or public charter schools, let’s figure out what’s working […] and share it with schools across America.”

In this campaign, some people initially doubted where Secretary Clinton would land on charter schools. That’s understandable given the politics around charters in this election season. But Clinton has lately been showing her reformer roots. When directly asked whether states should impose uniform caps on charter schools, Secretary Clinton responded that states should develop measures to keep charter schools accountable, but ultimately “allow successful public charter schools to add new campuses or grade levels.”

Democrats have also led the charter school movement here in Massachusetts. The state’s first charter school law, passed in 1993, was championed by Senate education committee chair (and later Senate president) Tom Birmingham and House education committee chair Mark Roosevelt, both liberal Democrats who have since endorsed Question 2. “Voters,” say Birmingham and Roosevelt, “shouldn’t block access to great charter schools for parents who desperately seek an alternative to what their district offers.”

Then-state Sen. Stephen Lynch, now a Democratic congressman, was the lead sponsor on the 1997 bill to lift the Massachusetts cap for the first time. Another cap lift, in 2010, was passed when President Obama launched the federal Race to the Top program. Democrats in both the House and the Senate overwhelmingly supported the resulting legislation to double the charter school cap. The lead author of that bill, Democratic State Rep. Marty Walz, went on to lead the Massachusetts chapter of Planned Parenthood and is now the chair of the DFER Massachusetts advisory council.

Even as the issue has become more contentious in Massachusetts politics, courageous Democrats who understand the facts remain strongly in favor of charter expansion. The current House chair of the education committee, Alice Peisch, and her two predecessors, Walz and Pat Haddad, all support lifting the cap on charter schools despite starting their careers as charter school opponents.


As these lawmakers’ evolution shows, even charter school opponents become supporters when they spend time with the data and become deeply acquainted with facts, as education committee chairs must. Walz and then-Democratic state Sen. Robert O’Leary, who together chaired the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education during the passage of Massachusetts’ 2010 Education Reform Act, wrote with regards to a 2015 attempt to lift the cap legislatively that Massachusetts should “build on what works” by lifting the cap on public charter schools.

Congressman Lynch, a labor Democrat and former ironworker union president, has seen first-hand the positive impact of charter schooling through his work at Boston Collegiate Charter School, a high-performing charter school in Dorchester that he-cofounded. Lynch calls himself “very much pro-charter school.” On his support for Question 2, he said “I certainly am very, very supportive of [public charter schools] and I support expanding the cap.”

House Speaker Robert DeLeo is another courageous Democrat willing to counter powerful special interests in favor of what’s right, explaining, “I decided to do what I feel is best for students. Whatever the political ramifications may be, I think it’s the right thing to do.” US Education Secretary John King and former US senator Mo Cowan, both of whom played leadership roles in the Massachusetts charter school sector, also both support Question 2. In a recent op-ed, Cowan wrote that lifting the cap on public charter schools “currently is our best option to empower more families to choose the right public education for their children and for the rest of us to support innovation in education, the foundation upon which every innovative idea is built.”

Support for charter schools is also strong among the next generation of Democratic leaders, especially in cities and communities of color. Boston City Councilors Andrea Campbell and Josh Zakim refused to endorse a Boston City Council resolution against Question 2, and Campbell has since come out strongly for the charter cap lift, making the case that her constituents want better schools.

The soon-to-be only women of color in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Juana Matias of Lawrence and Chynah Tyler of Roxbury, ran as unabashed charter supporters and have both endorsed Question 2. When she is elected on November 8, Tyler will be the first charter school alumna to serve in the Massachusetts House. Her principal at Roxbury Prep was John King, President Obama’s education secretary.

The notion that Massachusetts Democrats don’t support charter expansion is a myth. Democrats who care about good government, want quality education for all students, and know the facts understand that charter schools must be part of the solution.

At Democrats for Education Reform, we support charter schools in Massachusetts because they are proven to provide a quality education to students who have too often been left behind by traditional schools. As progressive education reformers, we want every child have access to a quality district school – and we will fight to make district schools better no matter what happens with Question 2.

Right now, though, there are simply too many children in chronically underperforming district schools. Every student currently on a charter school waitlist has just one chance at a K-12 education – they cannot wait decades for adults to solve adult problems and fix the district schools. For these children, Massachusetts charter schools represent the opportunity for a better future.

If we as progressives believe that government can make a difference in people’s lives, we have a responsibility to ensure that it does. This means identify areas where the status quo is insufficient, try new solutions, measure the impact of those solutions, and replicate what works. It is a data-driven process that must be separated from mere ideology. As progressives, we employ this process to bend our social structures toward justice. Arne Duncan, President Obama’s first secretary of education, put it best when he said, “Our policies have to be based on evidence and based on facts. Secondly, we have to be the party that fights for those who have a harder time fighting for themselves.”

This process is mostly common sense, but in practice it is often difficult to achieve. Any status quo exists because people with power have benefited from it, whether consciously or not. It takes courage to admit that such a status quo is broken, failing the members of our society who have most often been left behind. And it takes even more courage to work to change that status quo. But that’s what being a progressive and a Democrat should be all about. You identify the problem, you use data to find a solution that works, and once you’ve found that solution, you replicate it.

The mechanism by which charter schools are funded is also fundamentally progressive. In Massachusetts, the money follows the child. This means simply that schools receive funding for the number of students they educate. When charter schools do well by their students, demand increases and more students want to attend. There is no “siphoning” or “draining” of money from public schools because (1) charter schools arepublic schools, and (2) the money always follows the child.

In terms of results, the academic consensus is clear that Massachusetts’s urban charter schools do a better job of educating their students than do traditional districts. A succession of academic studies from nonpartisan, independent institutions such as Harvard, Stanford, and the left-leaning Brookings Institution have consistently verified the substantial positive impact of Massachusetts charter schools.

In the most recent Brookings Institution study, respected education researchers Sarah Cohodes and Susan M. Dynarski wrote, “One year in a Boston charter […] erases roughly a third of the racial achievement gap.” They conclude that “[t]here is a deep well of rigorous, relevant research on the performance of charter schools in Massachusetts. In fact, it is hard to think of an education policy for which the evidence is more clear.”

History, conviction, and data make the Democratic case for charter school expansion. As progressive Democrats, we have always supported the civil rights of disempowered groups over the simple and classically conservative ideal of local control, which has so often been used to disempower those very same people. Democrats accordingly played leading roles in the development and implementation of charter schools here. There is room for ideological disagreement within the Democratic Party, but no one can seriously claim that Massachusetts charter schools don’t work, or that that Democrats have not supported them.

Believing that government can make a difference in people’s lives comes along with a responsibility to measure that impact and do more of what works. Charter schools work in Massachusetts, and their carefully measured impact embodies Democratic values. That much is clear. President Obama’s belief is similarly clear. He has called on states to lift charter caps and stated that such caps are “not good for our children, our economy, or our country.”

That’s why we at Democrats for Education Reform are “Yes on 2.” We hope you will join us in advancing our state’s—and, yes, Barack Obama’s – education legacy by voting “Yes,” too.

Liam Kerr is Massachusetts state director of Democrats for Education Reform.

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