‘Educational crisis’ guidelines set system on wrong course

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The Board of Trustees’s sweeping and vague policy for designating a school “in educational crisis”—which was drafted with no public input, then hastily adopted—should be actively opposed by LSCs, principals and teachers. To correct the wrongdoing at Prosser High School, it is not necessary to violate the rights of 550 schools. Approval of this policy, which gives the board virtually unlimited powers to dissolve a democratically elected LSC, remove a principal and replace a school’s staff, suggests a return to the past errors of top-down management and closed decision making. Designs for Change has these serious concerns:

The policy fails to ensure due process and sets no procedures for a fair investigation. A school being considered for the “educational crisis” designation must have the right to know the charges against it, be allowed to respond and have a right to appeal—the same basic rights as someone who is given a parking ticket. Under this policy, a school has none of these rights. Instead, it contains 16 vague criteria allowing the chief executive officer to declare a school in “crisis,” including one criterion that, in effect, includes “anything else I forgot to mention.”

The General Assembly already has given the board authority to move swiftly to discipline or remove individual LSC members, principals and other staff who abuse their position. The board does not need to declare a school in “crisis” to take quick, effective action against such individuals.

The policy indicates a dangerous misperception of changes the General Assembly made last May in the School Reform Act. In fact, legislators affirmed that the local school is still the key site for decision making and improvement, and that the new board has specific powers in limited areas. Central control and power over school jobs concentrated at City Hall was practiced in the past, and failed.

CEO Paul Vallas has defended the board’s haste in adopting the policy because “the alternative would be to sit on our hands for months or years while children are deprived of their education.” This is totally inaccurate. The board has a number of existing regulations empowering it to remove staff or LSC members that could have been used at Prosser High School.

Any reworked policy should allow a school to be declared in “crisis” only after the board states in writing why no other available actions, including the ouster of individual wrongdoers, are likely to remedy a school’s serious non-performance. Fair procedures for investigation should ensure confidentiality, notice to the accused, a chance to respond to charges and an opportunity to appeal. If a school is declared in “crisis,” the board’s corrective actions should be targeted narrowly to solve the problems uncovered. And the ultimate goal must be to return a performing school to local government and control. After all, decision making was placed at the school level because this structure holds the greatest promise for improved student achievement.

We are concerned about the intimidating effects of the sweeping “crisis” rules. LSCs, principals and teachers will think twice before speaking out on board policies if they do not succeed in pruning back these vague rules.

Joan Jeter Slay, associate director

Designs for Change