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October 14, 2012

Column: Lawrence’s big school problem needs a big, bold solution


Now the commonwealth has a new man and a new plan. Receiver Jeff Riley is capable; the plan a good start. But it is just a start. Its goals are modest: Lawrence will be among the best older, industrialized cities in the state. By definition, that means their performance would be below state averages.

Much has been made of the sizable roles five charter operators have being given in Lawrence schools. But only 1,000 to 1,500 district students will be served by these operators. The extent of the flexibility granted them is ensconced in memoranda of understanding, the interpretation of which depends on relations between the local teachers union and the superintendent/receiver.

If we are to again rely on one person to turn around the district, success will also depend on how long Riley stays. We’ve seen this movie before — it played out in other districts: New York City with Joel Klein and Washington DC with Michelle Rhee. As Riley himself notes, it’s never really been done successfully.

So what’s the right path? Is it to charterize the entire district at once, as happened in New Orleans after Katrina? Five years later, New Orleans students were outperforming Louisiana state averages.

Or is it DC’s approach, in which 42 percent of students are in charter schools and the number increases every year? That would require making 4,000 Lawrence seats available.

If it were done, a dozen charter operators would step up to meet the challenge tomorrow. Lawrence is close enough to high-performing Boston charters to take advantage of their existing funding networks and talent pipelines. And the opportunity to do something big is precisely the kind of challenge that energizes charter operators, principals and teachers.

It is hardly a radical idea; just a response that is equal to the seriousness of the problem. We should not continue to subsidize schools in which half the students drop out and many go on to engage in behaviors that will require future subsidies.

The usual argument against large-scale charter expansion is that dollars would be transferred from the district to public charter schools. That argument doesn’t apply here; state taxpayers already pay for Lawrence schools.

We own the problem. It’s time to suspend the usual rules.

Jim Stergios is executive director of Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank.

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