Massachusetts poll results show support for state control of underperforming schools
An ongoing battle over Massachusetts' power to take over underperforming schools and districts comes to a head this week, as a new poll released Tuesday shows most state residents support the state-control policy — the day before opposition advocates are scheduled to rally on Beacon Hill for its removal.
A bill dubbed the "Thrive Act" would remove the power of the state to "receive" schools and districts with low performance, partially based on statewide standardized testing. The state's teachers' unions have thrown their support behind the Thrive Act, and will be among the educators, students, parents and other advocates who knock on lawmakers' doors on Wednesday to ask for them to sign on to the bill.
Democrats for Education Reform, a more moderate education group that supports charter schools, keeping statewide standardized testing as a graduation requirement and state receivership, commissioned the poll conducted by MassINC Polling Group.
When asked if they believe the state should have the authority to place chronically underperforming school districts into the control of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, 66% of poll respondents statewide said it should. The 44% remaining were split —16% of people said the state should not have the power, and 18% said they didn't know.
In Boston, receivership was more popular, with 70% of respondents saying they support the policy and 19% responding that the state should not have the power. Additionally, 76% of the respondents who supported state receivership powers identify as Democrats.
The results are based on a survey of 600 Massachusetts voters who voted in either the 2020 or 2022 general elections or registered to vote in the last three years. The margin of error for the sample is plus or minus 4.8%.
Since the state receivership policy was authorized in 2010, DESE has taken over three communities — Lawrence in 2011, Holyoke in 2015 and Southbridge in 2016. All three districts remain under state control. In practice, this means a state-appointed "receiver" can make decisions typically made by a superintendent and local school board, reform curriculum, and report directly to the DESE commissioner.
Supporters and opponents of the policy have differing views on how effective the intervention has been in the three districts.
"While receivership remains underway in each community and thus the work is unfinished, it has already led to meaningful improvements in student experiences and outcomes, and a dramatic increase in the hiring of teachers of color. This includes four-year graduation rates increasing and dropout rates decreasing, resulting in thousands more students finishing high school," says a press release on the new poll from Democrats for Education Reform.
But opponents say that continued state control after, in two cases, over a decade of intervention, is evidence that it is not working.
"The districts that the state is operating are now ranked as the lowest performing districts in the state — by the state's own measures," says a recent report on the Thrive Act by Citizens for Public Schools and FairTest. "The strategies that the state has used have led to low morale, high educator turnover, and a failure to give students the opportunities to thrive that they deserve. These failures call into question the underlying theory that punishment tied to test performance is a good approach to motivate students and educators."
This report claims that under the receivership model voters and community members in these three cities "lost their voice" and were "stripped of their powers" to make decisions about local schools. It adds that the three districts that have been taken into state control serve low-income communities with high numbers of recent immigrants and English language learners.
A policy recommendation brief endorsed by the Massachusetts Teachers Association, AFT Massachusetts and other union and progressive education groups claims the intervention narrows student learning experiences, and that students suffer from disruption and instability.
"Many educators and students report that learning in takeover districts and schools is reduced to test prep in math and English language arts, robbing students of the enriching educational experiences that students in the suburbs take for granted," says the brief, which was sent to lawmakers last year.
In a presentation before the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on Tuesday, Holyoke "receiver" Anthony Soto gave a presentation on the district's progress.
He reported that graduation rates are increasing, especially for students who are multilingual and students who have disabilities. Enrollment in advanced coursework has also increased. Soto also said dropout rates have decreased -- though there was a substantial spike close to pre-2015 levels in the 2020-2021 school year.
There has been a 15 percentage point increase in the number of teachers of color in the district, Soto said, from 13 percent of the teacher population in 2016 to 28.1 percent in 2023.
The district is facing challenges with staffing consistency and vacancies, student mental health, and an increased number of students requiring out-of-district placement, according to the receiver.
He added that "receivership has caused some tension in the community."
For Democrats for Education Reform, they say the results of the new poll show voter support for continuing the intervention strategy, which they say helps hold "school districts accountable for how well they are educating the state's 900,000 public school children."
"At the same time the teachers unions are moving aggressively to dismantle the state's education accountability system, Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly support receivership to ensure all of our children receive a high quality education, not just some of them," said Mary Tamer, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform Massachusetts. "The state invests more than $7 billion a year in our K-12 public schools. Without strong, objective oversight and remediation, these critical investments will be spent in darkness, and a prevalent culture of low expectations will continue in chronically underperforming districts which serve tens of thousands of children."