In January, a state receiver took over the City of Lawrence’s district schools aft
er more than a decade of failure. The takeover represents a “Katrina moment” for Massachusetts — a one-time opportunity for bold action that changes the way we look at school reform in our urban districts.
When the entire cities of Chelsea and Springfield (not just the schools) were in free-fall, the commonwealth tested new, large-scale reforms that rapidly brought municipal expenses in line with revenues. These included folding pension funds into the overarching state system and getting
collective bargaining under control.
In recent years, those reforms became widespread in cities and towns across Massachusetts.
But even the threat of Chelsea and Springfield going bankrupt was less dire than the state of Lawrence’s schools. The future economic and social viability of the city is premised on how today’s students are doing. Without fixing its schools, the city can’t begin to address crime, rampant poverty and an unemployment rate double that of the commonwealth.
Lawrence is not only among the lowest-performing school districts in Massachusetts, but its students are in worse shape than their counterparts in New Orleans were prior to the infamous hurricane. Half of Lawrence’s high school students don’t graduate within four years. Nearly two-thirds of the class that entered high school in 2009 had already failed at least one class by the middle of that academic year.
State receiver Jeffrey Riley comes into a difficult situation. The district’s previous superintendent has been found guilty of embezzlement and possession of alcohol on school property. The district he leaves behind performs dismally and has made little meaningful progress. This year, increases in the state funding that accounts for almost all of the district’s revenue will again be consumed by pay hikes negotiated prior to the state’s