House and Senate lawmakers have less than a week to finalize an education reform bill in order to meet a Jan. 19 deadline to apply for millions of dollars in federal education stimulus money.
A conference committee is working to hammer out the differences between two versions — one passed by the Senate in November and another passed by the House just after midnight on Wednesday night. Gov. Deval Patrick said he wants the bill on his desk by next Thursday in order to meet the federal deadline.
"I have no concern about meeting that deadline," State Rep. Martha Walz, of Boston, told WBUR's Bob Oakes in an interview. "Because there are not significant differences between the House and the Senate versions of the bill, I am quite confident that the bill will be done on time."
There are two main differences, as Walz sees it: the authority given to superintendents instead of the commissioner of secondary and elementary education, and the authority to terminate teachers in regard to concerns over collective bargaining rights. All in all, Walz said that number of sticking points is small.
Both bills give the state more power to overhaul the state's worst schools.
"We're going to have state intervention in a small number of schools and it's going to be a very disruptive change," Walz said. "If we're ever going to change the culture and turn the schools around, we need to take extraordinary action. But it's in a small number of schools and in the vast majority of schools across the Commonwealth, the standard rules will apply."
Several teachers unions across the state were pushing for certain reforms and amendments throughout the debate on the education bill. The Senate version includes an arbitration process for any teachers fired in an under-performing school.
The original House version did not include arbitration, but an amendment approved in a flurry of votes Wednesday calls for expedited arbitration and was backed by the Massachusetts Teachers Association. As MTA President Anne Wass explained earlier this week, that would require the parties to come to an agreement in 30 days. If they came to an impasse, they would enter a 30-day arbitration, after which any decision handed down by the arbitrator would be binding.
The House version also added an amendment to clarify under what circumstances the superintendent may fire teachers, striking the "just cause" provision and replacing it with "good cause." Wass said this would put a burden of proof on the superintendents to demonstrate the teacher has contributed to the school's failing and has gone through the proper evaluation procedures.
The main target for Walz is the achievement gap among students from different socioeconomic backgrounds. She said the House measure will address just that.
"The bill's very targeted towards trying to close the achievement gaps, which is why we're focusing on the worst performing schools, so that we can try to bring them up and allow the children who go to school there to meet their full potential," she said.
Click "Listen Now" to hear the interview with Rep. Martha Walz on Morning Edition.
This program aired on January 8, 2010.