An open letter to Governor Deval Patrick

Posted by on Mar 1st, 2013 and filed under Blog. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Dear Governor Patrick,

You have always been one of the nations greatest advocates for improving education for our children, protecting the underserved populations, and advocating for the needs of your constituents. The work you have done has not gone unnoticed, yet at the same time cities and towns throughout the Commonwealth are in crisis, with many struggling under the crushing burden of unfunded mandates from Washington, and from Beacon Hill, at a time when our economy is only now beginning to recover from the recession that has left us often taking one step forward, and two steps back. In towns such as Shrewsbury, where I live, it seems that we are faced with nothing short of economic crisis, year after year, as our new growth has come to a standstill, and yet our costs of running our schools, caring for our roads, and cleaning our wastewater has continued to soar exponentially. These issues have pit one group of residents against another, as those with means and those with children in school call out for operational tax overrides, while those without means, and who have already completed educating their children, call out for lower taxation and a restraining of the skyrocketing costs.

I know that you care deeply about these issues, Governor, and at this point feel that you need to take a leadership role in reforming the educational system in the Commonwealth once again, to enable us to continue to take pride in the most highly recognized schools in the nation. Fortunately, unlike most such lofty objectives, this need not be an ethereal exercise over the course of many years, but can likely be done in an expedient and revenue neutral way, which will enable our cities and towns to continue the recovery that they have started, provide far better education to our children, and unite, rather than divide, our citizens.  While the issues are clearly complex, they really fall into three main areas of thought – (a) applying the concept that it is up to all towns in the Commonwealth to contribute to the educational needs of all students in the Commonwealth, rather than each community being solely responsible for, and at the mercy of, the individual needs and choices made by a particular family, (b) working with state leadership, private and public insurers, and school and community leaders, to define what role and responsibilities relating to students with special needs should be defined as “educational” requirements, and which aspects should be defined as medical,  housing, and transportation related responsibilities, and (c) working to reform collective bargaining between communities and teachers unions, to enable us to value the incredible contributions that our valued teachers make in our society, reward appropriately the exemplary service many provide far over and above their job description, and yet at the same time be able to ensure that town budgets remain sustainable.

I truly feel that, to paraphrase the oft-quoted African proverb, it does take a village to raise a child.  I believe that it is inherent upon all members of a community to care for other members in order to allow our society to move forward.  Certainly, social welfare nets at the federal level serve to do this function, as do almost all state programs.  As a society, for example, we all pay into social security, and when someone is disabled and needs to collect, those resources are available.  Part of our state taxation goes to fund Mass Health, TAFDC, WIC, and other such programs, and as such regardless of what town an eligible person may live in, those state programs continue to support their individual needs, without requiring them to appear in person before their respective town manager and beg for the very benefits to which they are entitled. This is not the case, however, with one and only one aspect of entitlement, which is the cost of educating children with highly specialized educational needs, some of which can be handled within their school district, and others which require out of district placements. Under the 1973 IDEA act, amended and reauthorized in 2004, student with disabilities must be guaranteed a “Free and Appropriate Education.”  I concur with the letter and spirit of that law 100%.  These students need every service we are providing, and more, and as stated previously, I feel it is up to each and every one of us to see to it that this happens.

This is not an easy thing for a parent of a special needs child to ensure, however, because the system which currently exists in Massachusetts places the burden on the town in which a student lives to determine the level of services needed, in conjunction with the family and medical professionals, of course, and then pay for these services out of the education budget.  This methodology creates a conflict from day one, in which a family often finds themselves at odds with a school district, with the former trying to get the best services for their child, and the latter facing budget crises year after year, trying to find the most cost-effective suite of services that will comply with the IDEA mandates, while often spending 25% of their entire school budget on special education.  In the case of our town, we spend 10% of that budget merely on the 1% of students in out of district placements alone, not counting the great work we are doing in-district.  Inevitably, this creates issues wherein each party is then bringing in “their experts” to advocate for their particular position, with a student caught in the middle who just wanted to education to which they are entitled. This “zip-code based entitlement” is even more obvious with respect to students moving into a particular school district. Under the current law, any student that moves into a district prior to April, becomes the responsibility of that new district to provide for.  As school departments throughout the state try to get their budget requests completed, they face more hurdles than an olympic athlete.  They have no idea what the level of state funding will be, no firm number on circuit breaker reimbursement, no guarantee of costs for their out of district students, and of course no clue as to how many new students with out of district placements, or intensive in district needs, may move in during the year. This makes it impossible to do accurate budget numbers in a timely fashion.  As school districts face budgets that are beyond tight, many are in a position of actually having to lay off teachers just to balance the budget. Suddenly, a family moves into their particular community that has a child in a $350,000 per year out of district placement (to which they are absolutely entitled), and the school administration is left wringing it’s hands and wondering if it will need to lay off an additional 7 teachers to pay for those services.  I suppose at the same time, to that students former community, the news that they are moving must seem like a financial windfall, and the thought of that sounds to me as ridiculous as it does downright cruel.  Do we really want to live in a state where town leaders start to imagine that it would be less costly to buy that family a free house if they agree to live in another town?  I know I do not. What difference does it make which community someone settles in, we as a Commonwealth have a responsibility to care for them and do all to enable and empower them to be the best that they can be.

As a parent, a taxpayer, and former School Committee member, I feel that we need to fix this system.  I expressed these views to former Secretary of Education Paul Reville, in a meeting several years ago, and posed to him the following thought.  Special education remains, as I stated earlier, the only mandate that I am aware of which is dependent on zip-code of residency, yet it does not have to be this way at all, nor does the Commonwealth need to spend more revenue to solve the problem. Instead, let us modify this such that all residents of Massachusetts are responsible for these costs, just as they are now all responsible for every other entitlement.  Just looking at out of district special education costs, for a moment, let us assume that collectively, the total amount spent by all cities and towns in $X annually, to educate “Y” number of students. Where do these $X come from?  Well, they come from the school budgets of each town, which inevitably come from the taxation base, and from the many forms of state dispensation, whether it be “cherry sheet,” Chapter 70, etc.  That is then mitigated by state circuit breaker reimbursement, and in the end, $X has been raised.  Instead of this method, let us use the same financial dispensation methodology that the state uses for every other program. Under my proposed model, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts will be responsible for the $X in it’s totality.  No matter where a child lives, their benefits will follow them.  This leaves a district able to truly work to provide the best suite of services for each and every student with no fiscal conflict, much as they do now with the school lunch program, in which low income students are provided free and reduced lunch, and it is reimbursed by the federal government.  Where will the $X come from at a time when the Commonwealth’s budget is already stretched thin?  Well it is really already there.  You need only to deduct that $X from the amount of Chapter 70 and other state funding to cities and towns, and centralize the cost.  To a district that currently has no special need students, they will lose some revenue. To a small town like mine, in which nearly 10% of the $50M+- school budget, in a town with 6000 students, goes to educate just the 70 students in out of district placements, they will gain revenue, and be able to restore teaching positions, and get class sizes under control.  In the end, however, all cities and towns will benefit because they will be able to properly plan their budgets, and be true advocates for all students, not adversaries.

Does this approach sound radical?  If so, let me restate again that this is how every other state mandated program works. Towns don’t need to be concerned that a person on Mass Health may move into their community and need a heart transplant, because as a Commonwealth, we all pitch into that system.  I do not pretend to be an expert in state government, but it seems logical to me that a simple realignment of the funding methodology would be a revenue neutral approach that would thrill parents, students, and community leaders alike.

Moving away from special education, this same issue can be applied to students choosing to attend technical and vocational schools, as well as charter schools.  Rather than each community going through the agonizing process each year of trying to establish how many students are going to leave their district to attend outside schools, this would just be part of the normal operation of the DESE to handle. In this way, town X need not worry that a family just moved into town that has four students in a charter school, and thus is incurring a $70k bill for them.  Instead, those costs would be shared across the state, as they are for the other programs mentioned previously.  While we are on the subject of charter schools, the state needs to seriously look at that system, and whether it has, in some communities, gotten away from the core principals on which is was founded, namely providing a high quality learning option in inner cities where some students were finding it hard to thrive.  Instead, we have seen the spread of highly specialized schools where the plurality of students might be construed as gifted and talented, and where they are running what is basically a fantastic private school, being paid for not by the families who attend, but by the school district in which the student resides. I suppose some would say that this competitive environment causes local public schools to improve, in order to try and keep its best and brightest, and I believe we have seen that here in our community, yet it is far removed from the original intent of the charter school program, and the $1M+ in annual tuitions that our district pays to outside charter schools, is the equivalent of 20 teaching positions.

(b) Momentarily stopping back into the issue of special education, which makes up a large portion of any towns school budget, perhaps 25% or more, the issue has been raised as to someone coming up with a better means of defining what is “educational responsibility.”  This becomes more apparent, but is not limited to, the out of district placement.  Under the current system, it is up to the local school district to provide that “free and appropriate education,” and to do so in the “least restrictive environment.”  As I have stated, this is not an issue for me.  I feel this is our social obligation, and that we need to continue to provide each and every level of service possible, and more, to enable these students to achieve.  The question becomes, however, when is something an “educational” function, and when is it a medical or housing function that should be paid for not by a local school district, but rather by the health insurance, or family of the recipient? How much of the $350,000 per year cost of a particular placement is actually “educational” in nature? Policies are in place now which allow school districts to file for reimbursement from private and public insurers, but this system is murky at best, and the burden is on the district, not on the insurer, to prove the validity of a claim, requiring addition manpower and expense that could have been used for teachers. The same exists with in-district students, of course.  As schools have tried to reduce the out of district costs, they have become better and better at providing in-house services to people with disabilities, which has resulted in an increase in the level of care they are providing. Which aspects of that care should be construed as the school department’s role, and which should fall under the specialized medical needs that a private insurer should be paying for?  Again, I am not an expert in these matters, but feel that towns could probably provide better services as they relate to education, if freed from the overwhelming cost of the medical aspects of that care. The same applies to the high cost of transportation, both of special needs students, and others who opt for an out of district experience. We learned this week, for example, that one of our students has chosen to attend the Norfolk Agricultural School Program.  I think that’s fantastic, and we certainly need people with that type of background to ensure our continued food supply.  Why, however, does our towns school department, have to pay $25,000 in tuition for them, along with $35,000 in annual transportation costs?  That, Governor, is “a teaching position” that will be lost, to pay for someone to attend a completely optional out of district opportunity, which makes no sense to me at all.  What if 10 students decide to go there next year?  Shall we just eliminate 10 more teachers, in order to be able to pay that bill?  This is something that should be the Commonwealth’s responsibility, in my opinion, and thus the cost of transporting all of these vocations, technical and other such students needs to just come out from the top of the funds that were to be available for cities and towns, thus spreading those costs among all of the residents, as we do with all other social programs.

Lastly, Governor, is the challenging issue of the rising costs of running a school district, which inevitably come down to the cost of salary, health care, and benefits provides to it’s teachers and paraprofessionals.  This is not an attack on teachers, nor is it an attack on teacher salaries. In fact, I think many of them are paid far less than they deserve. I love our teachers, and can emphatically say that my children have been blessed with some of the best educators I’ve ever known, many of whom have become both mentors, and dear friends. Teachers work tirelessly, many of them well beyond the classroom, and the work that some of them are doing, especially under less than ideal conditions, is nothing short of fantastic. I can think of many teachers with whom I have had personal experience that I truly think should be making six figures, and one comes to mind that I would love to see get a large bonus, for securing a massive private grant for our district, which would only serve to encourage other teachers to write additional grants, and thus make us less dependent on state resources.  Sadly, the current systems of collective bargaining don’t really allow district to reward teachers based on such exemplary performance, any more than it allows them to do much about the few teachers with professional status who may be just showing up, and going through the motions.  Instead, teachers unions provide that someone has been there for X years, attained Y graduate credits, and should be earning Z dollars, regardless of performance. This would clearly not go over in any private company, where individuals are required to perform at a high level just to retain their job, much less to receive increases in salary, and where compensation might be based on the difficulty of the task at hand, and how well it is carried out.

For example, in a given school, you may have 6 teachers, all teaching 9th grade social studies. Each carries the same course load of students, yet one is earning 87,000 annually, and another 42,000, with the others all in between.  Their students are all learning the same material, testing the same on common assessments, and yet the range of compensation is disparate by over 100%, and in no way tied to any performance based metric like the rest of the world. This is a very unique situation indeed, and because of that, in conjunction with this thing we call “professional status,” or tenure, we as a society have removed any incentive for them to help take our educational system to the next level, to innovate, to go beyond that which is required,  Make no mistake, countless teachers do all of those things, but they do so only because they are passionate about what they do, and care about our children as if they were their own; yet in the end, they are not rewarded for their efforts in any tangible way, as I feel they should be. In some communities, unions are showing flexibility and recognizing that merit-based salary relationships are not demeaning to the profession. One recent article in the Collegiate Times spoke not of eliminating unions, but of the simple fact that “It would seem that if our education system needs to drastically improve, we need drastic changes from the teachers unions.”

Try to imagine bringing your car in for an oil change, and being charged based on the number of years that particular mechanic has worked there.  It sounds positively ridiculous.  Some would say that is not a good example, because teachers are”professionals,” so instead, imagine instead a visit to the dentist.  Will my dental insurance company pay twice as much to fill a cavity, because my dentist has been there longer? I doubt it very much.

School districts need the ability to both pay and employ based on pre-determined levels of performance. To some that would seem radical, yet it is, of course, how the rest of the professional world functions.  This does not mean that we need to cut teacher salaries.  In fact, as I mentioned earlier, I can think of dozens of teachers I know personally who truly deserve a massive increase in salary.  It merely means that people in the field need to be compensated fairly based on their individual skill sets, and most important that employers, in this case school districts, need to be able to set out each year how much they can afford to pay, at which point all of it’s “employees” can decide if they would like to work there, or seek a higher paying position. I have no idea why some fear this merit based system.  In a recent California development, teachers in San Diego, I believe, agreed to reduce salaries to save jobs and protect class sizes, if and only if, the performance issue was dropped.  In any event, all that the districts need is that ability to decide what resources they have, and plan accordingly.

With this freedom in hand, districts can begin to evaluate compensation based not on longevity, but rather on the individual talents required of different people, to do different jobs. Not to blaspheme early childhood educators, nor to encourage hate mail from the amazing people that had my kids in kindergarten, but I truly believe that the workload of a high school AP English teacher, coming home with 100, five to ten-page papers three nights a week, mentoring students, tutoring for the AP tests etc., is just different than the workload requirement of a kindergarten teacher, albeit responsible for 25 rambunctious 5-year olds, but who’s day is about todays class song, sharing circles, teaching adding and subtractions, and whether today will be an indoor or outdoor recess.  Again, I’m not demeaning the kindergarten teacher.  It’s a really hard job, and I could never have the patience to do it. These teachers, in many ways, set children on a path of being lifelong learners, as they did for my kids.   At the same time, that teacher is not up until 11PM each night grading papers and agonizing over 40 college letters of recommendation.  This difference in workload, however, is something that current districts have no way of recognizing. If both teachers have been there for 10 years, and have the same degree, they earn the same pay, and when asked why, the answer is “that’s just the way it has always been done.”  Still, that is not the way other professionals are compensated. The Wall Street attorney makes more than the local real estate attorney.  The neurosurgeon earns more than the general practitioner.  The accountant at Earnst and Young earns more than the accountant at HR Block.  It’s really not a radical supposition to think that districts should be able to compensate based on workload and job requirements, rather than only on years of service. This can be done not by a wholesale change to the system, but merely by replacing the current methodology with “salary range” contracts, as many school districts do already with their senior leadership teams.  The salary of a principal is set by the School Committee policy as being “between X and Y” for the current year. The Superintendent can then decide where within that range a certain principal will be compensated, whether to even extend their contract or not, and if so for how long.  They can set in place criteria for annual reviews, establish bonuses, and even lay out corrective measures that they feel would need to be dealt with in order to see the contract extended for an additional year.

At times like this, when class sizes have risen precipitously, and teachers are constantly being asked to do more with less, something our community’s teachers have risen to time and time again, these new policies would allow us to reward excellence, where it is warranted, and seek out new talent when needed. Of course, in a world of traditional collective bargaining, this seems absurd to some.  To me, absurd is the union representing the workers making Twinkies refusing to re-negotiate a salary plan, in order to “protect their workers,” all of whom are now going to be unemployed as they forced the company into bankruptcy.  Last year,  one Governor took the lead on this, Gov. Walker of Wisconsin, and it nearly cost him his job, and resulted in Wisconsin legislators literally fleeing the state to avoid a quorum. He did, however, successfully prompt a national debate on teachers unions, the effect of which is still reverberating.  Others followed suit, with Mayor Bloomberg of NY challenging the LIFO (Last In First Out) system, and indicating that any teacher layoffs needed should be based on merit, not seniority, something supported overwhelmingly by a plurality of city voters, but then blocked at the state level. Indiana, Tennessee, Ohio and other states are already considering bills for things from merit based pay, to limits on collective bargaining, as you will note in the article at this link.

Teachers are our national treasure, and we entrust upon them the most valuable things we have, in our children.  They deserve everything we can give them, and then some.  At the same time, however, we are hamstrung by the simple fact that the revenue of a community is not growing at a rate commensurate with being able to give every employee an annual cost of living increase, a step increase, and a comprehensive health care package. In times of rapid community growth, such things were possible, but now we just find ourselves each year reducing staff, so that we can increase the income of those remaining, and to me it just feels like throwing people off the Titanic in the hopes that without them the boat will stay afloat.  This is just not a sustainable method, and something has to be done to fix it.

You have countless brilliant minds at your disposal Governor, and I proudly admit that I am not one of them. I don’t know what the solutions are, and those who know me will tell you that I like to speak in these broad terms, and let others work out the details. I do know that we need to find something, and that it will only happen by taking on bold new initiatives.  I suppose in one sense, we are fortunate to have not only a brilliant mind such as yourself running the Commonwealth, but also one who is term-limited. You have the ability now, in your final term as our Governor, to take chances, to explore new ideas, to bring together community leaders and hear what they have to say, and in the end, find a solution that will be your legacy in years to come, and more importantly set the cities and towns in this great state on a pathway to renewed prosperity.

Thank you very much for your time, and for your years of service to the people of Massachusetts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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