Governor Deval Patrick, in a potential break with the teachers unions that helped elect him, is set to propose a new form of public school that would assume unprecedented control over matters ranging from curriculum and hiring decisions to policies on school uniforms and the length of the school year.
The governor's proposal for "readiness schools," a key element of his sweeping 10-year education plan to be unveiled later this month, aims to combine features of the state's charter schools and Boston's experimental pilot schools. Governed by local boards and freed from many constraints imposed by unions, school districts, and the state, the readiness schools would adapt to community needs and offer new alternatives in school systems across the state, administration officials said yesterday.
"We need to radically transform the existing system," said one official briefed on the plan who talked on condition of anonymity.
The plan is likely to be embraced by suburban parents, who have clamored for more choices, and several education groups yesterday signaled their approval.
But it could meet stiff resistance from teachers unions that have fiercely protected their influence over issues such as hiring policies and could represent a significant roadblock as Patrick tries to win political support.
Additionally, school districts in the past have argued against charter-type schools, saying that they suck money from regular public schools and steal the best students from the systems.
"I told the governor I thought it was a breakthrough to put this on the table," said Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, which has advocated for pilot schools in Boston. "But there's got to be a receptivity on all parties."
Patrick plans to file legislation on the readiness schools in January. If approved by the Legislature, the state could have its first such schools by the start of the 2009-2010 school year. Administration officials have an initial goal of 40 readiness schools within four years, but hope to create more after that. There are currently 1,870 public schools statewide.
Like charter schools, which have been operating in Massachusetts since 1993, readiness schools would be allowed to deviate from state curriculum guidelines and experiment with teaching practices. Unlike most charter schools, which are governed by the state, they would report to local school committees. Also unlike charter schools, readiness schools could be created from existing public schools, according to the plan.
The readiness schools would be similar to Boston's pilot schools, created in 1993 when the city struck a deal with the teachers' union to create the charter-type schools that are free from School Department and collective bargaining rules.
Both pilots and charters have been hailed by advocates for offering more innovative teaching styles and curriculum. The schools typically admit students through a lottery system, and many have long waiting lists. Administration officials said readiness schools would be open to all students in a district and would have no admissions criteria.
Teachers unions have long criticized charter and pilot schools, which typically hire nonunion teachers. Union officials, who wield influence in the Legislature and with local school districts, said yesterday that they like the governor's program as a concept but want more assurances that their members' contracts are protected.
"We are open to other ways of doing things," said Anne Wass, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, which has nearly 108,000 members. "Certainly we're not negative. We're willing to work with the administration on this."
One area that may prove controversial is an aspect of the plan that would limit collective bargaining to salary and benefits and due-process dismissals.
"We're open to new ideas, but we're interested in protecting collective bargaining rights," said Thomas Gosnell, president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, which has 27,000 members. He declined to comment further until the administration puts out more details.
Under the plan, there are four ways a readiness school could open: A group of educators could form a collaborative and present the local school committee with a plan to operate a school; a district could convert a school with teacher consent; a School Committee could contract with outside operators, such as charter school management companies; or the state Board of Education could convert a school deemed chronically underperforming.
The schools would be held accountable through performance contracts; if student achievement lagged, the School Committee could vote to take the school back.
"As a concept, we're really intrigued," said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, a state advocacy group.
"After years of not being included in discussions on education reform, we now feel there is going to be a really healthy dialogue."
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.