Thursday, February 13, 2014

Experimentation and Opportunity: Essex County Schools

[A] single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.

-- Louis Brandeis, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court,
New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann, 285 U.S. 262 (1932).

As reported in today’s Boston Globe, Governor Deval Patrick awarded five grants totaling $50,000 to the Pentucket Regional School District for innovative learning academies within existing schools. Other Essex County schools also received grants, including the O’Maley Innovation Middle School in Gloucester and the Tilton Innovation School in Haverhill.

The Commonwealth’s commitment to flexibility and experimentation in education is one of the critical reasons why Massachusetts’ public schools consistently rank near the top in the nation. Pentucket’s five programs will run the gamut—from an International Baccalaureate program and visual arts to a program focused on safety and public service.

What is most critical now is for the State to have measures in place to objectively analyze the successes and failures of each academy so that best practices can be shared with other districts and other ideas can be dropped if deemed ineffective.

But experimentation is not enough to ensure that all students have access to a quality education. Cities and towns in the Commonwealth that have excellent schools also have a responsibility to open their doors to students who, largely by accident of birth, do not have access to the same high-quality education.

One such school is my alma mater—Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School. Last week, the HW School Committee reauthorized the School Choice program at the Regional. There is no doubt that School Choice imposes significant financial costs on districts that welcome students to their schools. Indeed, it is high time that the State cast a critical eye on the amount of School Choice tuition (paid to HW by the town of the choice student), which has not changed since it was first set by the state legislature at $5,000 in 1991.

Nevertheless, the benefits of choice—both to the students who take advantage of it and the broader student body—should not be underestimated (and I don’t just say that because my sister married her high school sweetheart, who just happened to be a choice student from Essex).

Choice students add a diverse array of experience/perspective to a class that, for the most part, grows up in a relatively insulated bubble from K-8. Furthermore, with demographics data projecting fewer resident students at the high school over the next 10 years, School Choice students help the Regional maintain a critical mass of students necessary for a robust, engaging curriculum.

As Horace Mann, the Father of American Public Education and a Massachusetts native himself, said 165 years ago:

Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery…[and] [t]he people of Massachusetts have…appreciated the truth that the unexampled prosperity of the State…is attributable to the education, more or less perfect, which all its people have received.

The Commonwealth is stronger when we all have common experience and opportunity and I am proud that my hometown and my home county continue to embody the principles of Horace Mann and Louis Brandeis.

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