Zero Tolerance for Zero Tolerance

IMG_0200For 30 years, I was a teacher in both private and public elementary schools. I certainly was not a perfect teacher, and I made more than my share of missteps, especially in interactions with students.

Experience can be an exacting teacher, however. One of the most important and useful lessons I learned was that for empathetic practitioners, there is no such thing as “zero tolerance”. Despite one’s insistence that a rule be followed without exceptions, the reality is simply the opposite. In a world of right-or-wrong, black-or-white, there is always a gray space.

Take a school’s zero tolerance for wearing caps in school as an example. On the surface, such a policy seems simple enough particularly for those of us who were brought up in the generation of “men do not wear caps inside.” I share with you an anecdote from my time as an elementary teacher.

One morning, a student of mine walked into my third grade classroom just on the cusp of the tardy bell. His head was down, he hadn’t gone to his locker, he made zero eye contact with anyone and… he had his baseball cap firmly on his head. This student was a leader, well-liked and respected by his peers and, even at his most challenging, liked by his teachers. When I asked him to take off his cap, as was the rule, he simply looked down and shook his head defiantly.

As I was about to escalate this conversation, I was saved from being a jerk by the school’s social worker who had cajoled the whole cap story from this child. For some reason, this student’s father had taken to giving the child an at-home hair cut, leaving tufts of his hair randomly interspersed between patches of skin. My student was mortified that his friends would see his new haircut and, as kids often do, taunt him mercilessly. So in a nod to the gray area, the zero-tolerance of caps in school was abandoned and the cap stayed on.

I tell this story because there is an important take-away for every “zero tolerance” situation, including the one currently unfolding in our government. The consequence of this government’s action however is far less benign than becoming an over-zealous enforcer of school rules.

Zero tolerance should never become an absolute; there are far too many extenuating circumstances that can and should guide it. It is a lesson our government could and should apply as well.

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25-year old calculations do not make equitable access to schools

Screenshot 2018-06-08 06.17.46

If a picture is worth a 1000 words, this one, courtesy of Colin Jones of Mass Budget is one of the most compelling reasons why we need to implement the Foundation Budget update (S.2525) which is currently languishing in Committee.

Communities with greater wealth have the luxury of adding to the grossly under-calculated “what it costs to educate a student” (Chapter 70) calculation. Here’s an Screenshot 2018-06-08 07.05.05example: in neighboring Burlington, MA, the per pupil cost calculated $9,940. In Lowell, that base number is set at $11,734.  Based on the economics of each community, the Commonwealth determined that Burlington’s state aid be set at $1,724 leaving the remainder, $8,341, for the Town of Burlington to provide. Recognizing that Lowell’s community economics are different from Burlington, the numbers look quite different: state aid is $8,875 and the City’s required contribution is $2,859. In an effort the keep this “simple”, which it is not, I’m ignoring the whole cash vs. “in kind services” debate.

Burlington’s per pupil costs are enhanced by the Town’s ability to add $8,409 to what Massachusetts has determined is the cost of educating a student in that town. Lowell, with many more demands on its municipal budget, adds $518. So, in the end, Lowell is able to spend $12,252 on every school student (public and charter) while more affluent Burlington can allocate $18,474.

This is not just a simple numbers game; it gets worse. Those per pupil determinations that the Commonwealth starts with are based on 1993 (yes, that is correct) formula calculations. So in 2018, the data determining how much each community is expected to expend and raise for each student is already 25 years out of date.

The Foundation Budget Review Commission tackled this issue 2 years ago, but the recommendations were not implemented. It was not forgotten by everyone, however, and a refreshed bill, S.2525 unanimously passed the Massachusetts Senate last month. Now it’s the Massachusetts House’s turn. And this week, with some strong advocacy by Rep. Vega, House members are appealing to Speaker DeLeo to move this legislation out of the House Rules Committee and on to a floor for a vote.

Locally, because state funding in education has been whittled away Lowell’s kids are on the losing end of budget roulette: our K-8 students will no longer have school libraries, for example.As of this morning, only Rady Mom from the Lowell Legislative Delegation has signed on to Rep. Vega’s letter asking that Speaker DeLeo move the FBRC bill (S.2525) out of committee for a vote.

I cannot understand why our other two representatives are hesitating to embrace a reform that would – over time – provide Lowell’s children with equal access to educational services. Maybe one of them can explain that to me.

If your Representative is either Mr. Golden or Mr. Nangle, please call, fax, or email them today. We need to fix the funding formulae in Massachusetts so that every child, no matter the ZIP code in which they reside, has equal access to education in the Number One Schools in the Nation.