Oldham: Vote no for the schools, twice (10/28)

“Vote no for the schools, twice” / Jim Oldham
Amherst Bulletin, Friday October 28, 2016

Vote NO for the schools, twice  

On November 8th, while voting for President, local voters will consider several ballot questions. Questions 2 and 5 concern our schools. Although touted as improving educational opportunities, both would have significant negative impacts for current and future students. They should be defeated.

Question 2 is a statewide referendum that would authorize the state Board of Education to approve up to 12 new charter schools each year without limit, eliminating the existing 120-school statewide cap and per-community maximums.

Charter schools benefit some families, but their rapid expansion undermines equity by weakening the public schools’ ability to serve all children. Charter schools receive tax dollars at the expense of public schools—they will pull close to $3 million from the Amherst schools this year and half a billion dollars from communities statewide—yet they are not overseen by elected school committees or accountable to local communities.

Whose Schools?, a report from the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, highlights a “troubling lack of parent representation in the governance of charter schools in Massachusetts.” Sixty percent of charter schools have no parents on their boards, while “nearly one-third of the trustees … are … corporate [and] financial services professionals.” Many live outside the communities the schools serve.

Claims that Question 2 would advance social justice are belied by the authors’ observation that charter “schools that do offer parents… a strong role in school governance are disproportionately White. At schools with majority-minority student populations… parent voice on the schools’ governing boards is rare, and often minimal.”

The NAACP has called for a moratorium on the expansion of the charter schools “at least until [they meet] the same transparency and accountability standards as public schools; [their funding is not] at the expense of the public school system; [and they] cease expelling students that public schools have a duty to educate and cease to perpetuate de facto segregation of the highest performing children from those whose aspirations may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.”

These are fair expectations. Massachusetts voters should join the NAACP, and school committees across the state, to oppose unrestricted expansion of charter schools until they have been met.

Question 5 is a local debt exclusion override to determine whether to raise over $50 million in taxes towards the cost of building a two-wing elementary school to replace Wildwood and Fort River schools. Both are over forty years old, with structural and design problems, so, with state funding covering about half the net construction cost, there are compelling arguments in favor.

However, passage would also eliminate K-6 schools in Amherst, converting Crocker Farm to an “early learning center” for students in pre-school through first grade. The new school would serve all Amherst’s second- through sixth-graders.

This reconfiguration and consolidation breaks up families unnecessarily, undermines continuity in children’s education, and inappropriately includes second-graders with older students due to space limitations at Crocker Farm. It has never been adequately vetted in the community. Teachers and parents surveyed on behalf of the School Committee overwhelmingly opposed the proposal.

Much has been claimed regarding supposed equity benefits of consolidation. I won’t repeat the many ways it will negatively impact struggling students and families with limited resources since Eve Vogel has described these well (Bulletin, September 30). However, having strongly opposed busing students from low-income housing outside their enrollment zone to achieve so-called equity, I find it disingenuous for school leaders, who have maintained that practice for years, to now use it to justify school reconfiguration. It should not require a $66 million building plan to eliminate a practice that officials acknowledge is “inconsistent with our equity goals.”

People I respect support Question 5 as a way to get the improved schools we need, but this is not our only option. Better choices, most notably the construction two co-located preK-6 schools, were taken off the table by school leaders. Defeating this proposal is the only way to bring them back and trigger more community consultation leading to an improved proposal equally eligible for state funding.

Advocates for Question 5 describe it as a bold “legacy vote” to address flaws in the existing schools. But this begs an important question: are we buying the school the town’s children need?

In the 1970s, when Wildwood and Fort River were built, nobody was advocating for schools with noisy classrooms lacking natural light. Rather, they envisioned bold schools for the future, designed to be, as Ellen Story has written of the current proposal, “loaded with innovative learning spaces” to “greatly enhance the learning experiences of all our students.” Yet within a decade, as Story recounts, there was “growing disenchantment” with what was created.

Taxpayers would be foolish to again invest heavily in an untested plan, particularly given the large number of flaws that have already been identified.

Jim Oldham is a Town Meeting member from Precinct 5.












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