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Article of Interest - Education

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Bridges4Kids LogoRomney Details a Plan to Aid Troubled Schools
by Frank Phillips, Boston Globe, October 29, 2003
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Saying he is "very, very troubled" over educational achievement gaps, Governor Mitt Romney wants to encourage underperforming school districts to improve by offering them full-day kindergarten, greater leeway in firing decisions, and merit pay for teachers.

Romney, in an interview yesterday with Globe editors and reporters, said he would like to offer full-day kindergarten to children in underperforming school districts if the parents agreed to attend weekend classes where they would learn ways to help their children in school.

As part of his initiative, Romney said, he is creating a 14-member education task force today headed by Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, that the governor hopes will address the lagging MCAS scores in the state's worst school districts with a host of innovative ideas, some of which he said will "challenge the education establishment."

"What troubles me most is the achievement gap," said Romney, who is scheduled to outline his proposals and the formation of the task force at an educational conference in Marlborough today. "Those things make me very, very troubled."

But Romney made clear he will push for structural changes and is not inclined to funnel more money to the districts, with the exception perhaps of expanded kindergarten programs. He noted that per-pupil spending is about equal across the state.

"We can't go on just saying the same old thing -- continuing to do the same thing and expecting a different result is foolish," Romney said. "And we are going to have to take a different approach to improve those schools."

Romney said he is not dictating what the Grogan panel should propose, but he did offer suggestions.

"I would have full-day kindergarten in our troubled districts, but have it contingent upon parents attending an education preparation course," Romney said.

"I want parents in troubled districts to understand how they need to be partners in the education process with the teachers, with the administration, and with their child . . .," Romney said.

Michele Brooks, director of the Boston Parent Organizing Network, was intrigued by the governor's ideas for full-day kindergarten and help for parents. But she wondered how he would pay for the initiative, and hoped the weekend training program for parents would not be punitive.

"I would have to see how it could be done, because I think it has its merits," Brooks said in a telephone interview. "I think parents need support in understanding how they can help their children, and that is very important for student success."

The governor also said he wants to give underperforming districts greater authority to challenge the "education establishment," including adopting some of the flexible policies used by successful charter schools. He said that may include merit pay for the best-performing teachers and giving local school authorities the right to fire teachers who aren't meeting standards.

"I believe we also need to provide additional compensation to people who take on tough urban teaching jobs," Romney said. "I'd love there to be some kind of merit pay for our very best performers, particularly in these troubled districts."

The average annual teacher pay in Boston is about $62,000 this year, according to school officials. The average in Massachusetts was about $49,200 in 2001-02, according to the state Department of Education.

"I just think we have to make sure we are putting our kids and our teachers first and the education establishment has to take a back seat," Romney said. He defined the "education establishment" as primarily the unions and some of the administrators in the system. He said part of that challenge would involve reviewing the jobs that administrators and principals are doing in underperforming districts.

"I anticipate that in those troubled districts, we might want to see a review of the principals and the superintendents to make sure we have the right people in charge. And then I would give them the ability to hire and fire," the governor said. "Probably not the entire faculty."

Romney did not single out the underperforming districts by name. The education commissioner next month is expected to recommend to the state Board of Education which districts should be called underperforming, with schools in Holyoke, North Adams, and Winchendon and Joseph P. Keefe Technical School in Framingham under consideration.

Edward Doherty, assistant to the president of the 20,000-member Massachusetts Federation of Teachers, questioned some of Romney's suggestions. Merit pay has failed elsewhere, Doherty said, and the federal No Child Left Behind Act already provides much leeway for principals to let go of teachers who are not deemed "highly qualified." Doherty said he hopes teachers sit on the governor's proposed task force.

"Most people that are working in the field of public education would disagree with four out of five proposals the governor suggested, but the idea of a task force -- as long as it has people that represent teachers in this state -- is important," Doherty said.

Romney did not reveal who else he will appoint to the task force he will announce today, but aides said the group will include educators and civic leaders.

Grogan's group is expected to report back to Romney by the end of the year.

On other issues:

Romney said he is backing off his proposal to reorganize the public University of Massachusetts system and eliminate the president's office. The decisive vote in the Senate, the general opposition against the plan, and the uncertainty it would create in attracting a new UMass president persuaded him to drop it. "I will not bring it up again," he said.

He took a partisan swipe at US Senator John F. Kerry by coining the term "Kerryism" to describe a convoluted answer. Noting the Massachusetts Democrat's struggle to square his vote for the Iraq war resolution last year with his opposition to President Bush's funding to rebuild Iraq, Romney suggested he himself may be accused of a "Kerryism" when explaining why he now is keenly interested in the search for a UMass president.

    

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