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Next governor will have big influence on Holyoke schools and others in state receivership

Holyoke Public Schools is one of three districts in Massachusetts run by the state department of education. The next governor will appoint new members to an education board that could potentially view receivership in a different light.
Holyoke Public Schools
Holyoke Public Schools is one of three districts in Massachusetts run by the state department of education. The next governor will appoint new members to an education board that could potentially view receivership in a different light.

A Holyoke School Committee meeting this month began with the usual roll call, the Pledge of Allegiance and a presentation from students.

Then came a report from Holyoke Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Soto, who detailed the most recent and largely declining student scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, the state’s high-stakes standardized test known as MCAS.

“You know, there were some positive trends in terms of math and science. But overall, we're not where we were prior to the pandemic,” said Soto, who noted scores were disappointing in much of the state.

The MCAS is how the state assesses student learning. If students are not achieving at a certain level and the problem is seen as chronic — like in Holyoke, Lawrence and Southbridge — schools can be taken over by the state.

“In [English Language Arts], scores declined in most grades," Soto said.

Soto is not only Holyoke’s superintendent, he’s also the state-appointed district receiver, a role which comes with extraordinary decision-making power.

A district receiver and the state education commissioner, Jeff Riley, together can expand the school day, change a curriculum and even suspend teachers union contracts.

School committees and their elected members have no authority as a board, but in Holyoke, they continue to meet and hear often from Soto.

'Receivership doesn't have the answers to fix this'

At the meeting, following a long presentation on the MCAS scores, school committee member Erin Brunelle spoke up.

"I'm sitting here, and literally my blood is boiling," she said.

The overemphasis on the MCAS drives her mad, Brunelle said. And she is not the only person in the district or the state questioning how student achievement is being measured.

“We are in receivership because of how we did on this test,” she said. "And our grades have not gotten any better. Receivership doesn't have the answers to fix this.”

In a week, Massachusetts will elect a new governor, who come January will hold considerable sway over the state's public schools.

Whether it's Geoff Diehl or Maura Healey, he or she will appoint new members to the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. That board decides when the state steps in to take control of what are labeled "chronically underperforming districts," and when it steps away.

The return of local control, sometime

For Holyoke families and educators vocally opposed to the receivership, it's been a long seven years of state control. The Holyoke Teachers Association opposed the receivership from the beginning. Union leaders, who settled a new contract in September, declined to be interviewed for this story.

In a statement, the union said it will “work cooperatively with local leadership to do what is best for the children and teachers of Holyoke to ensure that their best interests are kept at the center of all undertakings as any transitions take place.”

The return of local control is coming — gradually, said Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia. Garcia, a lifelong resident of the city with one year under his belt as mayor, said the commissioner made a commitment to transition Holyoke out of receivership.

“I feel good about the conversations we're having,” Garcia said. “I'm pretty confident if things go as planned that we’ll get local control sometime within the next two years, if not sooner.”

A spokesperson from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education was not as definitive.

In an email, she said the state is working with Holyoke “to implement and sustain improvements,” and that educators have been adopting new practices in their classrooms at an ambitious pace, but that “it will take time for … the changes to be fully reflected in student results.”

Before now, Garcia said, the classroom and school organization changes demanded by the state weren’t possible without significant additional funding. Those funds are starting to come through, initially from a major state education bill and now with COVID-19 relief money.

“The superintendent — or the receiver has invested a great deal in the workforce, in salaries," Garcia said. "[He’s] brought back programs that were eliminated."

The overarching goal of the Massachusetts education law that allows for state takeovers is to close an achievement gap between students of differing socioeconomic means.

Holyoke's district has been in receivership since 2015, with the state taking over all Southbridge schools the following year. The Lawrence school district went under state control in 2011.

Healey and Diehl, and a powerful state education board

On the campaign trail recently, the Democratic candidate for governor, Attorney General Maura Healey, said she wants the state to be a supportive partner with school districts.

“I want to support our local cities and towns when it comes to providing the highest quality education to our kids, and I will demand a plan day one for getting Holyoke out of receivership,” Healey said.

The Republican nominee for governor, Geoff Diehl, is a former state lawmaker. He said local control of school districts is most important.

“So the state, to me, seems like [receivership is the] last resort that we try to avoid whenever possible," Diehl said. "It's kind of bringing that big club in when you need a scalpel to try to fix what's going on."

Regardless of who’s elected, a governor won't make any any immediate changes, said Paul Reville, secretary of education under Gov. Deval Patrick. Reville now leads the EdRedesign Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Over a term or two, governors appoint new like-minded members to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which makes the decisions about receivership.

“That board, for reasons deliberately designed to prevent education from just changing in radically different directions [every four years] because it involves children ... the board is appointed to staggered terms," Reville said. "So they have five-year terms, but only a couple of them come up each year."

State education commissioners are hired or fired by the board, but like former Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester, they sometimes bridge administrations.

In the state hierarchy, above the commissioner is the secretary of education, who essentially acts as an advisor to the governor and has a seat on the state board. Right now it’s Jim Peyser. Under a new governor, Reville said, that’s likely to change.

Receivership isn't a silver bullet

Reveille helped author the education bill in Massachusetts that made it possible for a state takeover of schools. But he says the track record for receivership here and elsewhere is dismal.

“I mean, states have not been able to intervene in school districts in ways that have made a difference in terms of improving student performance in general," Reville said

Poverty and unstable housing — which can lead to absenteeism — greatly hampers learning. Both are factors for enough Holyoke families that it's felt in the school system.

“Unless you treat those factors you can optimize school or intervene all you want and you're not going to get the results,” Reveille said.

The state shouldn't minimize the impact of poverty, said Mildred Lefebvre, Holyoke School Committee vice chair and a parent of students who used to be in the district.

“Poverty plays a big part and people want to push that to the side and say, ‘It doesn't matter if you're poor, you will still [learn],’” Lefebvre said. “For some it may happen like that, but for others it doesn't.”

One day, she imagined, district decisions will be back in the hands of the local school committee. Lefebvre argues for a transition back to local control — not a quick return.

The state needs to see that Holyoke is ready, Lefebvre said, and that the committee has a solid system for making decisions to support student learning.

“This way you're giving [the state school board] assurance that it's about working together as a team to move our district forward,” said Lefebvre, who was elected before the state takeover in 2015. “Just what [state officials] want to see with our students, please know that that's what our intentions were all along.”

And Lefebvre said Massachusetts’ education laws need a review. Maybe that will happen under the state’s next governor.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."