Menino makes pitch for more charter schools

Mayor Thomas Menino’s proposal to convert city schools labeled underperforming into “in-district” charter schools would be a boon to Dorchester and Mattapan, city and business officials said this week.

Proponents say the proposal would allow the charter schools to stay part of the district and under the control of their school boards and superintendents, but not be bound by collective bargaining agreements with unions. Instead, they would operate under performance incentives aimed at encouraging innovation among teachers.

Dorchester has a concentration of schools that have been called low-performing because of low standardized test scores. “The largest number of underperforming schools is in Dorchester and Mattapan,” said Michael Tooke, a private investment banker who has worked to turn around a failing public elementary school in Dorchester.

Tooke has worked with two other Dorchester public elementary schools, the Codman Square Health Center, and Wheelock College to form the “Dorchester FAMILY School Initiative” to expand the “full service community school,” model, which features before and after school programs, arts activities and targeted teaching for at-risk students.

“If we have an in-house charter program, the odds are Dorchester will have an advantage in stepping up the quality of those schools,” he said of the underperforming schools.

“If in-district charter schools aren’t done, we’re going to see more of the same,” said state Rep. Marie St. Fleur, who has filed the legislation on Beacon Hill on Menino’s behalf.

St. Fleur said parents are “marching with their feet,” leaving the districts or sending their children to other schools.

“A lot of our schools are called underperforming,” she told the Reporter. “We can bring in the universities [under the bill]. The resources that are right in the neighborhood. And right now you don’t have the capacity to do that.”

Union representatives disagree and point to four different models that already exist: pilot schools, “discover schools, extended learning-time schools and superintendents schools, all of which are seeing progress and can be replicated. In September, the teachers’ union will open its own pilot school.

“These have all been negotiated and all are part of the system,” said Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union. “We already have the tools we need to improve our schools.”

Stutman also slammed the pay-for-performance aspect of Menino’s proposal, calling it imperfect.

“Under the mayor’s plan, good teachers – team players, respected teachers – would not necessarily be rewarded,” he said in testimony to the Legislature’s Education Committee, which heard testimony on Menino’s bill on Tuesday. “That’s what’s wrong with paying individuals bonuses based on statistics – it is imperfect. What’s more it is unfair and divisive and antithetical to the creation of the team approach we know we need to improve our schools.”

Maureen Feeney, the city councillor for District Three, told the Reporter she said Menino’s plan is worth a look.

“I don’t have an affinity for charter schools per se, but I do think we really need to look at this” she said. “I don’t know what the answer is. I think we need to see how this plays out first.”

She added: “I know hundreds of dedicated, devoted teachers who go well beyond the union contract. From that perspective, we want to be very sensitive to that.”

Supporters also noted that Menino’s plan could be quickly implemented, because it has no need to build or convert new charter school facilities, limited private funding needs, and less paperwork.

The Education Committee hearing at times turned contentious, such as when Menino said he had a “track record” of supporting public unions. The room, full largely of teachers, exploded in derisive laughter, and Rep. Marty Walz, a Boston Democrat and chair of the committee, banged the gavel and asked for quiet.

Menino’s support of charter schools is seen by some as an about-face. The16-year incumbent has sometimes voiced skepticism over them and how they potentially draw funds away from public schools.

Stutman said the federal government’s dangling of $5 billion in incentives for loosening charter school regulations as one reason, for Menino’s proposal, along with election year politics. Menino is facing challenges from City Councillors At-Large Michael Flaherty and Sam Yoon, and South End businessman Kevin McCrea.

“I think part of it is chasing the Arne Duncan dollars,” Stutman said, referring to the U.S. education secretary. He added, in a reference to Menino proposing the plan last month: “It’s either Flaherty coming out the day before or Yoon coming out the week before. I think the timing is suspect.”

Stutman said his union is staying out of the mayoral race, as it has for the last 20 years.

Both Flaherty and Yoon have praised Gov. Deval Patrick’s plan, which would set up state-wide “Readiness Schools” that offer some of the same flexibility as charter schools. Patrick would raise the cap on charter schools in 30 of the state’s lowest-performing districts.

Flaherty and Yoon have also said educational progress under Menino’s administration has been too slow.

Yoon has said he supports directing additional funding to charter schools with a “proven record of success.”

McCrea is the lone candidate to express wariness with charter schools, saying he prefers to focus on improving the Boston public schools system.

“He wants more control with less union involvement,” McCrea said of Menino. “I believe in collective bargaining.”

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