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A response to Olwell and Welby Perspectives article

Introduction:  In a recent Perspectives article, Different Structures, Different Worlds: ESAs Serving Students and Districts in Michigan and Massachusetts, Olwell and Welby compared ESAs in Michigan to Massachusetts. In her response article below, Dr. Schuman more closely examines the work of ESAs in Massachusetts.

Read the original article here, published February 2018

A response to Olwell and Welby Perspectives

By Joan E. Schuman, Ed.D.
Retired Executive Director, Collaborative for Educational Services  Northhampton, Massachusetts

According to the Association of Educational Service Agencies (AESA) website ( there are presently 553 agencies nationwide in 45 states.  Although there have been intermediate districts since the 1930s (County Offices of Education) most of these agencies were established through legislation in their respective states during the 1970s. The impetus for such legislation and the establishment of these agencies was, in most cases, the passage of P.L. 94-142 in 1975 which guaranteed a free appropriate public education to each child with a disability. Known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, the implementation of the statute forced states to scramble to set up programs for children who heretofore had been kept either in institutions or kept at home. States that had county governance of education used these structures to provide special education programming for the children and schools under their jurisdiction. Some states chose to pass legislation which set up public entities with specific geographic delineations; while others passed legislation leaving the formation of such entities up to the local school districts. This was the case in Massachusetts when Chapter 40:Section 4e was originally passed in 1974, which allowed two or more school districts to enter into an agreement to “conduct education programs and services which shall complement and strengthen the school programs of member school committees and increase educational opportunities for children” (Massachusetts General Laws, 1974). Governance was placed in the hands of a board of directors “which shall be comprised of one person appointed by each member school committee. Such person shall be either a school committee member or his designee or the superintendent of schools or his designee” (Massachusetts General Laws, 1974).

Thus was created the current arrangement and uneven distribution of educational collaboratives throughout the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. First, the population of Massachusetts is extremely uneven from east to west with the preponderance of cities and towns, school districts, and, thus, people, located along the coast and surrounding the capital city of Boston. Second, the distribution of wealth across the state is equally uneven with most of the wealth in the western suburbs of Boston. Third, most people do not think of Massachusetts as a rural state, yet one-third of the state—primarily the western third of the state–is both extremely rural and poor. It is also sparsely populated for the most part and therefore has less political clout than the remaining two-thirds.

In the late 1970s, well over 30 educational collaboratives were formed, primarily in the eastern third of the state, including the area south of Boston. In the western third of the state, each geographic county had one collaborative: Hampshire, Hampden, Franklin, and Berkshire Counties. Today, there are two remaining, although Franklin joined Hampshire in 2009 and became the Collaborative for Educational Services. While initially, the state may have given the cities and towns a small incentive to establish educational collaboratives ($25,000), it was a one time only grant. Thus from the beginning, Massachusetts educational collaboratives have had to be extremely entrepreneurial, dependent on their member districts for tuitions and/or fees for service, become highly creative in developing programs and services that their members would support, or attract funding from entities that provided grants and/or contracts. Olwell and Welby have concluded in their article: “Different Structures, Different Worlds: ESAs Serving Students and Districts in Michigan and Massachusetts” (Olwell and Welby, 2018) that ESAs that are part of a more entrepreneurial fee for service funding model have a more limited role in their respective state. I could not disagree more strongly with this conclusion.

For over 21 years, I was the executive director of an agency that became the largest educational collaborative in Massachusetts. During that period, I had the opportunity to serve on the Board of AESA, the national organization that represents ESAs across the country, and became familiar with different ESA structures, particularly those in the Northeast. I envied the ability of the Regional Educational Service Centers (RESCs) in the neighboring state of Connecticut to build magnet schools with state funding while at the same time retaining their entrepreneurial character. I felt less envious of my New York neighbors as their state support was cut dramatically and caps were placed by the state on salaries. Further across the country, I sympathized with my colleagues in Iowa and Ohio as their state funding was reduced dramatically, and they were required to consolidate and cut their numbers. More importantly, each year at AESA conferences, more and more programming centered around entrepreneurialism, innovation and the need to work with businesses and become more businesslike.

It is true that most of my colleagues in Massachusetts have chosen to focus on core programs for special needs and at-risk students. Since most of them are located in densely populated areas of the state, they can be financially successful providing these programs to their member districts along with some professional development and transportation. But those that have had the inclination to be more entrepreneurial in responding to the needs of their districts have focused on technology services, vocational and school to work programming, and statewide initiatives like migrant education or the education of our incarcerated and institutionalized youth. Indeed, if one goes back to Chapter 40s4e, the statute that governs educational collaboratives in Massachusetts, there is nothing in that statute that precludes collaboratives from developing programs, providing educational services, or implementing innovative solutions if they can show their boards of directors that these activities will enhance the educational offerings of their districts and their students (Massachusetts General Laws, 1974).

Naturally, because of collaboratives’ primary focus on the issue, it is in the area of special education that educational collaboratives have been most innovative.  All collaboratives conduct special education classrooms within the public schools of their member districts, and some conduct programs in centralized locations.  The in-school programs, for the most part, have been models of increasing inclusion as the special education students can be integrated with their regular education classmates and local students who may need more intensive interventions can be served by the collaborative classroom teachers and/or specialists.  It should be noted that in today’s world, educational collaboratives (and most ESAs that I am aware of) are educating the neediest and demanding students, many of whom have serious mental or behavioral issues and are one step away from residential placements or institutionalization.  Students with less demanding profiles can usually be educated within the public schools.  Because of collaboratives’ very low teacher/student ratios, many of these students can be kept out of residential placements, meet state testing requirements, and often participate in dual enrollment community college classes leading to matriculation when they graduate from high school.

Because of its location in the western part of the state, an area with limited access to assessment centers in the Boston area, or other states that had such centers, specialist staff of the (then called) Hampshire Educational Collaborative in 1994 asked that the Collaborative establish an assistive technology and augmentative communication center so that families would not have to travel over two hours to the nearest assessment center and schools would be able to test out the very expensive adaptive equipment that was being prescribed by centers and doctors and usually ended up stored unused in closets. The group took it upon themselves to become highly trained in the newest equipment being developed and became nationally renowned trainers in the field, presenting at national conferences across the country.  That center continues to provide assessments, training, consultation, and direct therapy to the students and teachers throughout the Commonwealth, saving school districts thousands of dollars in not having to purchase inappropriate equipment and private assessments. In addition, together with staff from other collaboratives, these experts have trained special education teachers at summer institutes for many years who are now able to provide on-site assessments in their schools. This is but one of many examples of innovative services developed by ESAs across the country.

Olwell and Welby discuss in their paper the convening or matchmaking role of ESAs, a role that has had effective results for educational collaboratives in Massachusetts.  Any number of community concerns regarding children and youth involve not only the schools but a host of social service agencies as well.  In the early 1990s, shortly after I took over the Hampshire Educational Collaborative (now the Collaborative for Educational Services), and long before the current opioid crisis, there was great concern on the part of the social service agencies in Northampton, the county seat, over a number of teen-related activities: high drop out rates, loitering in the downtown area causing great angst among local businesses, increasing substance abuse among young people, and a rise in suicides.  The schools in those days were not receptive to having social service agencies in the schools, and the social service agencies were anxious to provide services if they could gain access to potential clients.  An organization of social service agencies in the county, called COSA (County Organization of Social Service Agencies), came to the Collaborative seeking assistance in opening the school doors.  That chance meeting in 1994 led to the establishment of a coming together of social service agencies and school districts that today is the primary purveyor of youth involved programs to decrease substance abuse and other social-emotional issues among youth in Hampshire County.  Moreover, the organization, called SPIFFY, (Strategic Planning Initiative for Families and Youth), under the administration of the Collaborative, has brought hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant funding for substance abuse prevention including tobacco and alcohol usage and youth involvement programs to the districts in the county.

Other educational collaboratives within the Commonwealth have played a similar role in bringing nonprofit groups together to support legislation, create health insurance consortiums, start recovery high schools, and provide after-school programs and programs for adults over the age of 22, to name a few such initiatives that require working with nonprofits, IHEs, community and state agencies.

ESAs across the country are known both for their entrepreneurialism and for their innovation.  Before the profit-making companies dominated the technology field, ESAs in many parts of the country were developing software programs and online courses both for students in our schools and professional development courses for their teachers.  Many did this in conjunction with a neighboring college or university or with teachers in their member districts. Many ESAs across the country provided storage and internet connectivity services for their districts or their states.  In Massachusetts, The Educational Collaborative (TEC) began developing and sharing online courses that were developed by classroom teachers in their member schools; others bought commercial packages that they shared with their districts. TEC’s efforts became one of the first state-approved online schools in the Commonwealth.

With the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2002, Massachusetts began to focus on the preparation of teachers, particularly the alignment of teacher preparation programs with the Common Core. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) was concerned that there might be a teacher shortage and that those going into the teaching profession would not be prepared to meet the requirements of the new law.  For the first time, they allowed school districts and educational collaboratives to develop teacher licensure programs in partnership with a college or university.  Many collaboratives formed partnerships with IHEs, both public and private, and began teacher preparation (licensure) programs primarily in areas where there already was a need,e.g., special education teachers and special education administrators. Over the years, these programs grew to encompass all areas of licensure as the DESE recognized the value in having highly experienced classroom teachers teaching these courses.  Today, most of the courses being offered are “hybrid” courses, a combination of online and classroom-based experiences. It is interesting to note that the call from the DESE to meet the need to prepare a new generation of teachers and to meet the new regulations for teacher preparation was eagerly met by the ESAs of Massachusetts, and hundreds of teachers and administrators have acquired licenses through collaborative licensure offerings.

There are many more examples of collaboratives partnering with DESE: when the state abolished bilingual education and required all teachers of English Language Learners to have intensive ESL training, collaboratives answered the call. The Collaborative for Educational Services had established a Center for English Language Education to respond to the needs of our small and rural districts that were seeing increasing numbers of non-English speaking students enroll in their schools.  Thus in 2012, CES was able to gear up quickly to provide intensive training to over 1,100 teachers of English Language Learners across the state who needed this training to meet the state’s new licensure requirements. Following that successful training, CES partnered with DESE to provide training on the Common Core and the Massachusetts Educator Evaluation System.  Most recently, CES and MOEC, (The Massachusetts Organization of Educational Collaboratives) have partnered with the state to provide professional development to teachers across the state on inclusive practices, and social justice and social-emotional and trauma-informed learning, areas in which collaboratives are well versed. Because ESAs and educational collaboratives in Massachusetts are known for their agility and adaptability, DESE has become a more frequent partner calling upon those collaboratives known for their extraordinary professional development programs for help.  This partnership will only continue to grow as state departments of education continue to shrink and thus need others to help implement the states’ mandates, initiatives, and priorities.

Olwell and Welby are critical of Massachusetts’ lack of a strong county governance system, particularly as a vehicle for the organization and governance of both school districts and educational service agencies, as well as another stream for financial support. There was a time, many years ago when I first began to study ESAs, that I thought that use of county lines would be a nice way to organize the many collaboratives in Massachusetts.  However, both the population disparities and the weakened (practically nonexistent except in name only) county governance structures would make such a design impossible today.  Furthermore, there is something very liberating about not being dependent on tax revenues for sustainability.  Until 2013, the legislation governing educational collaboratives was virtually non-existent, and collaboratives were answerable only to their boards.  This is not to say that the “unknown or hidden existence” to most was a good thing. Since the beginning of their establishment in 1974-5, Massachusetts educational collaboratives have been trying to get recognition from the educational political hierarchy, and they will continue to do so until they are successful. Indeed, there is currently a bill in the legislature (HR2867) that will amend the current collaborative legislation to organize the existing collaboratives regionally and require DESE to promote the use of collaboratives as providers of programs and services for local school districts.

This legislation reflects the findings of a special legislative commission established in 2012 to study the role of educational collaboratives.  Led by the co-chairs of the Joint Committee on Education and including representatives of all stakeholders in the education community, the Commission concluded that: “Educational collaboratives benefit their member districts and the children and families they serve across the Commonwealth.  Nevertheless, even the most functioning organizations could better serve their members if a statewide network existed.  Such a network would facilitate open communication between all education entities in the state, including collaboratives, school districts, and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.  A seamless partnership between collaboratives and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will assist each school district in rolling out new initiatives and eliminating unnecessary duplication of efforts.” (Special Commission, 2012)

One can only imagine how powerful educational collaboratives in MA will become if this bill becomes law and the leadership of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education implements the law to its fullest intent as envisioned and enunciated by the Commission on Educational Collaboratives.  In 2011, I testified before the Commission on Regionalization and Collaboration to discuss the role that educational collaboratives can and do play in building the capacity of local school districts (Schuman, 2011).  At that time I spoke about the hidden and often silent partnerships that educational collaboratives had with their member school districts, their cities and towns, and with some state agencies, and that it was time to recognize the importance of these partnerships that have been kept under the radar screen for the past forty-five years.  Should the passage of HR 2867 become a reality Massachusetts’ ESAs local, state, and national partnerships and the incredible work those partnerships do on behalf of the educational community will no longer be kept under the radar and will become a model for the nation.


Olwell, R. and Welby, K (2018). Different Structures, Different Worlds: ESAs Serving Students and          Districts in Michigan and Massachusetts. Perspectives Journal. 2018.

Massachusettes General Laws (1974).

Schuman, Joan (2011). Testimony Before the Commission on School District Collaboration and     Regional Districts, May 6, 2011, Worcester, MA.

Special Commission on Educational Collaboratives (2013). Report to the Legislature. Boston. MA

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