Monday, January 8, 2018

Charter School Redux

We're nearing the end of "charter school season" and await the recommendations of the Acting Commissioner to see if any are advanced to the Board for approval later this month.

Some criticize charter schools for not educating all children, those with special needs or who are English language learners, in particular. Others say that charters and core public schools shouldn't be compared because the rules are different. Still others say the problem is with how charters are funded.

But if you go back to the original law (and it's been amended several times since enacted) one thing is clear: Where core public schools have always been about taking in and educating all children, charter schools never were -- and that was supposed to provide their edge.

"Labs of innovation" meant that they were not going to take everyone on purpose. Instead, they would take a small number of students so that they could try something new and different from what was offered in the home public school -- and then -- share back with them the findings of their innovations for student success. But few charter schools have lived up to this notion.

It’s reasonable that families want a personalized education for their child, but the answer isn’t charter schools, because that’s not what they’re about. Ultimately, it’s competition for funding that charters offer, and this turns the whole thing into a resource problem because charters drain money and resources from schools and districts, thus increasing class sizes, resulting in fewer educators necessary to address student needs in the home core district. Considered another way, such a condition contributes to the very problem everyone says they are trying to solve - that of closing gaps. It's an unhealthy cycle.

We should be so judicious, so scrupulous in our authorization, that we opt only for proposals with truly innovative and proven models not offered in the home districts. Why are we taking proposals for expansion or for new charter school authorization, when the state is falling down on its commitment to reimburse districts? Or when numbers of districts report time and again the impact that expansion has had, or authorization will have, on strapped budgets and an out of date state funding formula?

We all have a stake in the solid education of all our people, least of which are countless situations where our personal interests depend on others' competence, empathy, and compassion. Charter schools have become a powerful wedge for privatizing a public good and Massachusetts voters said that was the wrong way to go when they voted 2:1 to oppose charter expansion (Ballot Question 2). Nevertheless, unimpeded expansion of charter schools continues to represent a threat to adequate funding of core public schools.

Friday, January 5, 2018

A personal connection with the arts

My parents were musicians.

Mom was a concert pianist and organist. One of her gifts was that she could read any piece of music put in front of her. She loved playing Debussy, Schumann, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Bach, and Franck. She was frequently called upon to accompany vocalists and instrumentalists for upcoming recitals and auditions.

Dad was a sax, clarinet, and boom-chick piano-player who played in a dance band in high school, gigging on weekends with pals from his small town school. One of his gifts was that he could play anything by ear. He played at the piano during down time, weekends mostly, after he had finished chores with my younger brothers in tow. He enjoyed writing original vocal and instrumental compositions, including vocal arrangements for his barber shoppe quartet and for the religious in the convent on the far side of the fairgrounds in the small rural coal-mining town in Pennsylvania where we lived until I was ten.

I grew up in a time when arts education was the pride of every community, whether in public schools or in the public square, and I was encouraged to participate in all of it: music; drawing and painting; poetry and creative writing; dance; photography. I began with piano lessons in first grade. Over time, I added to my portfolio the needle arts; calligraphy & book arts; ceramics; cooking; costumery; collaborative arts. When I had worked for a while on a calligraphy project, a writing project beckoned; after working on that for a time, a knitting or sewing project next.

We moved from Pennsylvania to Ohio when I was ten, into a bigger pool of arts offerings, with more and different things to try. I was in my element. We moved again when I was fourteen, just before beginning high school, from Ohio to Massachusetts. The nascent arts and music programming in the school was lacking, left me wanting, and my heart sank as I came to realize that I wouldn't be expanding my arts education there. I felt defeated and frustrated and, initially, resentful, what with no big choruses to sing in or musicals to perform in.

But what ended up happening was that I became part of the group that built and led the music program there. Singing in newly established a capella and concert choral groups and learning to play a range of styles and instruments: piano in jazz band; oboe in concert band; trombone in the marching band. I took every music elective that was offered and invited others to join me. Ultimately, we took part in every musical we were finally able to produce in my last two years. I became student conductor for concert band and took to arranging and transcribing Bach two- and three-part keyboard Inventions for brass and woodwind ensembles. I sang in District and All-State Choruses and was a founding member of an elite ensemble of high school vocal and instrumental musicians that met every Sunday at Northeastern University for an afternoon of rehearsing original arrangements that were then performed in Symphony Hall and in other venues across the Commonwealth.

The affect the arts has had on me throughout my life has been boundless, but it was in those early, formative years that I developed an attachment to the arts and they became a lifeline to me as we relocated from the rural mountains of PA, to urban, central OH, and then to the quiet, reserved community in MA. Despite the paucity of music and arts programming offered in my high school (lo those many years ago), what was offered got me up and to school on the rainiest of days.

And, that still holds true today. Since the November 2016 election I have sat at my piano nearly every day, finding solace in patriotic and popular songs, and in the compositions of Debussy, Bartok, Haydn, and Bach. (I now have a little set that I would consider playing before a small group of friends).

A personal connection with arts, culture, or creativity has an immeasurable impact on one's life and well-being, place, and view of community. Among other things, my engagement has taught me patience, perspective, sequencing, problem-solving, persistence, and the joy of self-expression.

But, children in many public schools and communities are losing so much, whether due to shrinking budgets or the focus on standardized testing in schools or loss of national and state funding for community arts programming. The arts are designated a core academic subject, yet access to arts education in our schools is eroding. And this at a time when parents, employers, and civic leaders are demanding improvements to teaching and learning that will make our schools places where each learner will access a complete education and opportunities to succeed.

Our children will need to be creative thinkers and makers prepared to face and solve the challenges awaiting them in their future. To help them get there they will need many things, including an arts education. 

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Economy in the Commonwealth

Reports on public transportation (specifically, the breakdown of public transit), appear in local and regional news on a regular basis. Most people see economic growth as the number one reason to invest in our transportation system. A comprehensive public transit system for all communities would include improvements to our existing transit infrastructure, as well as expanding smart, transit-oriented development that's affordable.

Transportation infrastructure isn't just about economic growth, it also overlaps with our affordable housing, education, climate change, and energy goals and we should seek to adopt the holistic model of "complete streets" when considering what those community goals should be.

Employers argue that a strong economy doesn't exist without a strong workforce and see investment in vocational technical education as a key to keeping the Commonwealth competitive.

We need an energy infrastructure that reduces pollution, promotes clean energy, reduces greenhouse gasses, and protects our natural climate and environment.

We need sustainable and holistic practices for healthy natural and built environments that provide ample open space and reduced pollution, improving our communities and nurturing all of our residents.
Affordable housing is a difficult, multi-layered issue, too. We have an increasing, aging population. Seniors want to maintain social relationships and connections in their communities to maintain quality of life and there is limited housing, limited affordable housing, available for downsizing. Luxury condos are being built with incentives for builders, not for people.

We should all be concerned about the mounting crisis in privatization and corporatization of, not only our public transit system, but of our public education system, as well.

For many years already we have all seen a crisis in healthcare (and every developed nation -- and poor countries -- are working toward national healthcare, so why aren't we?) Solving it is part of the solution to the Commonwealth's economic problems, in addition to better healthcare for all.

We want flexible jobs? An innovative economy? Address income inequality? We are squandering those opportunities if we don't address transportation, affordable housing, public education, and healthcare now.

We have choices and the decisions that need to be made need to be made together. If it's important, let's make a plan and fund it. In my experience, when people get together, the best ideas come forward, so let's keep these issues front and center in this and the governor's race and see who has the vision and is willing to work with us to achieve it.