BOSTON (AP) - The Legislature's Education Committee was urged on Tuesday to support further efforts to strengthen oversight of struggling public schools and narrow the achievement gap between students in urban and wealthier suburban school districts.
"We should not have to wait for a school to fail before we give it the tools to succeed," Boston Mayor Thomas Menino told the panel during a public hearing at the Statehouse.
Menino, the city's longest-serving mayor who recently announced that he would not seek a sixth term, urged lawmakers do away with spending limits on charter schools in underperforming school districts.
A bill proposed by Menino would also broaden the ability of administrators to intervene in struggling schools.
The Legislature approved a comprehensive education reform law in 2010 that allowed for enhanced state and local intervention in the lowest-performing schools, those designated as Level 4 or Level 5 in the five-tiered classification system for public schools.
Schools designated as Level 5 could be ripe for a state takeover while Level 4 schools would be subject to "turnaround" plans that could include measures such as longer school days.
Menino and others at Tuesday's hearing proposed steps also be taken to shore up schools that were currently at the Level 3, or middle status, but were in danger of slipping into the lower designation.
"In our turnaround schools, we have the flexibility to intervene and innovate, but only in our lowest performing, Level 4 schools," said Menino. "We need this flexibility in the Level 3 schools that are struggling near the bottom," he said.
But some who testified at Tuesday's hearing urged a different approach, including an unusual coalition of teachers unions and school superintendents who opposed Menino's call for lifting the cap on charter schools and backed a separate bill that advocated a cooperative approach to improving schools that are drifting toward failure.
"This is an opportunity to sit down, work collaboratively, get yourself on the road to improvement and avoid being labeled Level 4 schools," said Paul Toner, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.
Under the bill backed by the union and the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, the lowest-performing Level 3 schools would be put on notice that they were in danger of sliding to the next lower level. But teachers, parents and school administrators would then be given time to mutually agree on improvement plans.
Menino called for an end to the cap on so-called "in-district" charter schools that were also created under the 2010 law and allow for independent groups to take over existing schools with the approval of the local school committee. He said the success of the concept at the Gavin Middle School in South Boston had been "off the charts," and that lifting the cap would allow it to be used at more city schools.
The mayor, however, added that he did not support calls to eliminate current statewide limits on Commonwealth charter schools, which operate independently from local school districts.
Charter school critics say they can pull resources away or lead to privatization of public schools.