In my experience on Beacon Hill, few bills have been more controversial, complicated and consequential than the bill just passed to address the state’s under-performing students and school districts. The complexity and sheer number of issues addressed by this legislation have had me studying, thinking and rethinking for months. My process was all the more complicated for the four radically different versions of the bill that have been before the legislature over the past two months and the wide range of divergent interpretations and opinions expressed along the way.
In the end, I voted for the final version of the bill, although not without some misgivings. I firmly believe that to not have done so would have had serious adverse consequences.
There were two compelling reasons to vote “yes.” The persistent achievement gap – the disturbing and stubbornly large number of poorly educated students in school systems across the Commonwealth – poses a serious threat to both economic vitality and socio-economic justice in our state. That failing schools and failing students are concentrated in areas with the poorest and most disadvantaged among us means that our debate was at the intersection of education policy and social policy. It also meant that old policies and approaches had failed and business as usual was simply not good enough. The new law targets only the worst performing schools, and the lives of students in those schools demanded positive action. It remains for us to deliver on the promise of the new law to better serve those students but a “no” vote would have had us turn our backs on them yet again, and I was not prepared to do that. There was a second, political, reason for voting “yes.” A proposed initiative petition eliminating the cap on the number of charter schools in the Commonwealth was destined to pass in November. While there are compelling arguments for charter schools, many serving the very districts targeted by the new law, the initiative petition threatened to completely undermine public school finances and public school systems in every district. The expansion of charter school options in the targeted districts that is part of the new law means that the initiative petition will not be on the ballot, and for that we should all be very grateful.
My major misgivings were also two in number. First, I believe that the bill could have done a much better job of balancing the need for major reforms with protection of educators’ rights. Both major teachers unions opposed the final version of the bill, and I agree that we could and should have done better. But politics is the art of the possible and I joined a majority of House and Senate members in swallowing hard as we knowingly compromised those rights in the name of student achievement. I take some comfort in the fact that these compromises were limited to a very small number of chronically failing districts, but compromises they were. Earlier in our deliberations, I had voted for amendments, included in the House version of the bill, which better addressed teachers’ rights. I would certainly have preferred if these provisions had been included in the bill that emerged from the Conference Committee that had to reconcile differences between the House- and Senate-passed versions of the bill. Sadly, they were not. Under our rules, Conference Committee actions are not subject to amendment and I was left to weigh the pros and cons of what was before us. Our students needed us to address the shortcomings of some of our school systems, and I cast my vote with them in mind, my disappointment with the bill notwithstanding. Second, the new law empowers local and state education officials to step in to improve student performance in failing schools. We now need to hold those officials to the task. I am not celebrating passage of the new law. I’ll celebrate when the success of governance changes we have made can be measured in terms of student outcomes. If we can finally address some of the nutritional, linguistic, economic and social challenges that are associated with high student failure rates in some of our communities, then we can declare victory. The new law envisions that victory and leaves us newly empowered to achieve it. We now need the persistence, the skill and the will to get there.
To end on a positive note, the new law includes two provisions of enormous importance. One of the most serious problems with charter schools in Massachusetts is how they are funded. Sadly, opening a charter school has entailed further straining and draining the budget of local school districts. While the new law does not solve this problem, it increases state funding to offset the budgetary losses associated with students enrolling in a charter school. More significantly, a provision that I sponsored to address underlying school finance issues was incorporated into the final bill. We have long needed a serious analysis of the true cost of public education in the Commonwealth. There is a court challenge to the way we fund schools and both the law and common sense point to the importance of identifying the financial resources and the real cost of providing good public education in communities across the state. I have been trying for at least six years to start down this road, and am happy to report that, with the passage of the new law, we have taken the first major step. The new law and the process that produced it are far more complicated and nuanced than this brief write-up can cover, and I’d welcome your thoughts both on the issues I’ve addressed and on any other aspects of the many versions of the bill or of the new law. And I’d welcome your vigilance as we monitor the results of this newly-launched effort.