Friday, December 4, 2009
Op-Ed: CORI reform and Education reform pass state Senate
State Senate ends legislative year with major victories

The state Senate last week approved two landmark pieces of legislation that will positively affect the residents of the City of Boston for the decades. Looking to reduce the recidivism rate, spend taxpayer dollars more wisely, and make access to criminal records more fair and effective, the Senate on Wednesday passed public safety bill that includes major reforms to our Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) system. One day earlier, the Senate passed an education reform bill that aims to systematically improve student success, narrow the achievement gap facing low-income students and students of color, and increase accountability in school administration. These two bills, if approved by the House of Representatives in January, are big steps toward greater economic and social justice in our state and greater safety in our neighborhoods.

 

 

Getting CORI reform through the Senate has been my top legislative priority this year. The legislation will give hope and opportunity to thousands of residents statewide. The bill passed by the Senate:

 

  • “Bans the box,” preventing employers from placing a question about criminal records on initial job applications. It requires employers to provide a copy of any CORI report before questioning an applicant on it, or before rejecting an applicant.
  • Reduces the look-back period from 15 years to ten for felonies, and from ten years to five for misdemeanors. (Homicides remain visible on a person’s CORI permanently, and sexual offenses remain as long as an offender has a duty to register with the Commonwealth, or for 15 years – whichever is longer.)

 

The bill also includes important reforms to our mandatory minimums system and improvements in post-release supervision. These reforms will make our neighborhoods safer by reducing recidivist crime. They will also help our communities build economic self-sufficiency by removing unnecessary barriers for those who are looking for work. And they’ll help all taxpayers by shifting public safety dollars from away from ineffective “revolving-door” models in our criminal justice system—making more resources available for public safety measures that we know work, like youth programming, substance abuse treatment, and community policing.

 

The school reform bill passed earlier in the week will likewise change our education system in Massachusetts for decades to come. As many of you know, as a former public school teacher, improving public education has been among my core motivators for running for public office.

 

When debate began this year over charter schools and our systems for turning around underperforming schools, I set out the goals for which I would be fighting as a member of the Joint Committee on Education. Below is an accounting of how the bill we passed this week, S. 2205, addresses those core goals:


  • The need for a sense of urgency when it comes to fixing failing schools. The bill puts in place strict timelines for turning around failing schools. It also provides new tools for school administrators to implement in our failing schools, including expanding the school day or school year and providing for increased opportunities for teacher planning time and collaboration. By lifting the charter school cap in the 10% lowest-performing districts in the state, the bill also ensures that more children have additional school options.
  • The rate of service delivered by charter and district schools, respectively, to high-need populations, such as special education students, English language learners, and students with less engaged parents. The bill requires that charters set specific goals for recruiting and retaining high-need students and requires the Board of Education to assess the extent to which charters have followed their recruitment and retention plans for such populations. While S.2205 is a step in the right direction, this is an area in which more work remains to be done. I filed two amendments that would have required charter schools to commit to population goals more comparable to what our district schools serve, and to be evaluated, in part, on progress in reaching those goals. These amendments failed in the Senate due to charter school opposition. However, I will continue to fight for all our schools to be held to high standards of accountability.
  • Fairness in the funding mechanisms used to apportion money to district and charter schools. To assist districts in budget planning, the bill allows tuition payments from districts to charter schools to be based on prior year enrollment. It also changes the formula the state uses to reimburse sending districts for students who enroll in charter schools, to more accurately recognize the overhead costs that stay with the district school even when the student leaves. In addition, the bill preserves a single line item for district schools and charter schools in the state budget, ensuring that funding is linked, in recognition of the fact that charter schools are public schools.
  • Teacher participation in the development of the standards by which we measure schools’ success. I successfully pushed for inclusion of a measurement of school performance for which many teachers have expressed support: the student growth model. This model measures student improvement on a year-to-year basis, as opposed to simply test scores alone. This combination of measures more accurately reflects the value added to a student’s education each year, especially in low-income districts, where MCAS scores alone will often show low performance even when great strides have been made. I also co-sponsored an amendment that gives teachers speedy but due process when superintendents make hiring and firing decisions at schools deemed underperforming. Finally, the bill includes teachers in the stakeholder groups charged with coming up with turnaround plans for underperforming schools.

 

Additionally, the bill recognizes something we have known for a long time: schools don’t operate in a vacuum. In creating turnaround plans, superintendents and the Commissioner must include steps to address the social, health, welfare, safety, and employment needs of students and their families in order to help students arrive and remain at school ready to learn.

 

Finally, if passed by the House in January, this bill will better position Massachusetts to access between $150 and $250 million in new federal stimulus grant money to help fund these reform efforts and continue the improvement many schools have begun in recent years.

 

S. 2205 is one step toward providing a high quality education for all of our children. Our work is not done yet. We must continue to press for more quality out-of-school programs and more resources to combat the drop-out epidemic, just to name a few. Nonetheless, this bill truly addresses some of the most urgent reforms needed in our public education system.

 

Both the education and CORI bills now go to the House of Representatives for a vote. Each member of our community can and should continue to weigh-in with your House members on these bills, with the hope that the House will take them up swiftly in January.
 

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