Bills aimed to empower schools get backing

Published in The Lowell Sun February 1, 2017

BOSTON — Lowell officials expressed support for two bills in the Massachusetts Legislature that aim to create “empowerment zones” to give public school districts more freedom and the tools to fend off state takeover.

The companion measures, offered by Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, and Rep. Alice Peisch, D-Wellesley, would help schools among the lowest 20 percent statewide by offering more freedom to change curriculum, encourage creative teaching, and use resources in a way that best fits their needs.

The bills are “revenue neutral,” according to the legislators, although schools could face additional costs depending on how they choose to proceed.

“The idea is to keep this focused, directed attention at schools that are most in need of this kind of help,” Lesser said. “The idea is to help them get caught up so that they don’t fall off into the threshold of requiring state takeover.”

Gov. Charlie Baker expressed support for empowerment zones partnerships in his State of the Commonwealth address and promised to work with legislators to create a statewide model.

“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.

Sen. Eileen Donoghue, D-Lowell, said having flexibility and creativity for district schools is a thoughtful approach.

“I’m interested in anything that we can do to provide that type of innovative aspect and innovative approach to education,” she said. “It’s certainly worth exploring.”

Lowell Mayor Ed Kennedy, who also chairs the School Committee, said the district’s schools have seen “unprecedented improvement” in the past two years.

Roughly two-thirds of Lowell schools are considered high performing by the state, Kennedy said. Many of the district’s Level 3 schools are on the cusp of moving up a level, he added.

The state ranks schools on a scale of 1 to 5, with Level 1 as the highest performing and Level 5 as the lowest based on state test scores and other factors.

“Lowell doesn’t need (empowerment zones) now,” he said, “but if we find ourselves in a situation similar to Springfield, or Holyoke, or Lawrence, it could be a tool for us.”

Peisch said her bill builds on past legislation, including the 2010 achievement gap law signed by former Gov. Deval Patrick.

“We’ve seen what has worked with the receiverships … that having more flexibility and autonomy is one element that seems to be common in schools improving themselves,” she said.

Lesser said his bill draws on ideas from both sides of the charter-school expansion debate. Ballot Question 2 was defeated in November.

The bills would expand a program that started in Springfield.

The Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership, which began during the 2015-16 school year, is the first in the state, according to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Within one year of the partnership, a majority of students attending nine middle schools in the zone had modest improvement on state tests, said Jacqueline Reis, a spokeswoman for DESE.

If everything goes right, empowerment zone partnerships could be ready for the next school year, Lesser said.

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