The state's new education secretary, James Peyser, is a major supporter of charter schools and discussed his plan to add more within Massachusetts and why he believes that the state has enough money to close the achievement gap and that there isn't too much standardized testing, and more.
JIM BRAUDE: We have 80 charter schools in the state, which are schools with fewer regulations, probably not with a teacher’s union. You and the governor want to add 50. What do you do if the legislature just says no again, like they did last year? How do you deal with your goals to close the achievement gap between rich and poor kids with no charter schools?
JAMES PEYSER: I don’t want to suggest that charters are the only way to close the achievement gap. I think they’re one part of it, and the inability to do more will be a serious blow to our efforts to do so. We’re gonna do whatever we can. Just by way of example, Lawrence has been in receivership to the state for the last three years or so, has charter schools in, it but the receivership has not included charter schools, and they made tremendous strides. There is work that we will do through the tools that we have. We need charters as part of that to make the strides that we can.
BRAUDE: But the thing that’s amazing to me, three percent of the kids in the state are in charter schools. I did some quick math: if you get 50 more, that may bring it to 5 percent. Again, that’s if you got the 50 you want. So all this political capital is being expended on something that could benefit—let’s take your argument—in a big way 5 percent of the student population, while the other 95 percent, many of them are aggravated because of the debate to begin with, and they have no direct benefit from that battle. Why put so many—so much power and energy into this narrow piece of the pie?
PEYSER: Well, it's where the schools are as much as anything else. When the original law passed and the original schools opened, they were scattered all over the state. Increasingly, however, they have been concentrated in lower-income, high-need urban neighborhoods. So in Boston, as an example, we are now at basically 13 or 14 percent of the students in Boston are going to charter schools. That will go up to 18 percent over the next several years. That is a significant number of students, obviously, a significant percentage of students in the city of Boston. That makes a huge difference in the places that need it most.
BRAUDE: If you are as are convinced as I know you are, and much of your career is spent working in the charter school movement, I said this the other day on the radio, on Boston Public Radio, instead of creating something out of scratch, which I would argue is not as nearly difficult as what I’m about to suggest: take over under-performing schools, instead of— I mean, Holyoke, now potentially in receivership, schools in Boston are in big trouble. If you are granted a charter, let them takeover a school that is failing, fix what is, rather than creating something from scratch, which to me, at least, is so much easier.
PEYSER: So it being easier—first of all, it's not easy. Second of all, if you start a school from scratch and build it up to full-scale over the course of, let’s say, three to five years, you’ve now built a permanent institution that is sustainable over time, that’s producing outstanding results. In many cases, turnarounds don’t take, or they take for a little bit, and they regress back. And so, even though it takes a little bit longer, the outcomes are better. However, to your point of charters being willing to take over schools, they are willing to take over failing schools. And there are organizations like Unlocking Potential, which have already done so.
We need to minimize the amount of testing we do, and that's on us for sure, but overall, I think there is a little bit of an overreaction to the testing that's going on, because so much of it is critically important.
BRAUDE: Let's talk about money for a couple of seconds. I mentioned to you the other day, Linda Spears, who was the woman picked by Deval Patrick to do an investigation of the Department of Children and Families after the nightmares that happened there. She was picked by Charlie Baker, which I thought was a great decision. She’s now saying, “I don't have enough money to implement the recommendations that I made that were embraced by people in a bipartisan way on Beacon Hill.” Are you in the same mess? Do you have enough money to do what you think needs to be done to close that achievement gap that Democrats and Republicans want to close?
PEYSER: So I think we do have enough money. I don't want to say that money doesn't matter; it does. And we appropriate or are about to appropriate $4.5 billion through Chapter 70, which is—which is the local aid funds for school districts, and that is $100 million more than we are spending this year. Money does matter, but there is a lot of money in public education. Using Lawrence as another example: The state went in there and basically did not spend a lot of new money but reallocated money out of the central office and put it back into the schools, and that’s the way in which we can go forward and get more out of what we’ve got.
BRAUDE: Higher ed.: As you know, the indebtedness on college loans is past mortgage indebtedness. I would argue one of the great scandals of this society; I assume you would agree. Three percent increase in this budget, if I’m write, for higher education: is that enough to keep tuition and fees frozen? Are you certain it is?
PEYSER: I'm definitely not certain that it is. I'm hoping that the campuses will exercise restraint in their increases of fees, which they are likely to do. But hopefully it will be at a small number. The reality is that 3 percent increase in this particular fiscal climate is actually a pretty strong statement in support of higher education.
BRAUDE: You said—a moment ago, you thought you had enough money. Wouldn't it be better to have more money to either insure the tuition fees are frozen in public higher ed. or to tip the balance so more is paid by the state and less by low- and moderate-income kids? Wouldn’t that be a better outcome?
PEYSER: We need to figure out what the right long-term strategy is for financing higher education and what the right share that the state can sustainably afford over time. I don't know if we are too low or high. At some level, if we had all the money in the world, sure, it would be great to have more money in higher education and lower costs, but we need to figure out what we can live with under the budget restraint, the revenue restraint, we have.
BRAUDE: Charlie Baker pledged both to improve the schools in the state and get rid of that gap to a great degree and not to raise taxes. If one thing had to give, as somebody who’s spent his life around education, isn't the thing that should give, is the pledge not to raise new revenue to ensure we have kids who are ready to fill the jobs of the future? No?
PEYSER: The thing that’s always been clear to me since I got into the business, if that’s the right word, 20 or 25 years ago, is that even though money matters, how you spend it is much more important than how much you have to spend. We have the resources to do the job well; we’re just not spending it in the right way.
BRAUDE: OK, we have one minute left. We’re going to leave the PARCC versus MCAS to the next hour we have together, but in 30 seconds, is there too much testing of kids? And if there is, are you going to do something about it? Standardized testing, that is.
PEYSER: Short answer, I would say as the general rule, no, there's not too much testing, but in some cases, there is too much testing, and in some cases, we are testing the kids and not using the data for any productive purpose. Data is essential to good instruction. We need to have that kind of data. Teachers need to have the data to do their job well. We need to minimize the amount of testing we do, and that’s on us for sure, but overall, I think there is a little bit of an overreaction to the testing that's going on, because so much of it is critically important.
BRAUDE: To be continued.