The new Massachusetts ‘grand bargain’ in public education

Law brings crucial new funding and accountability 

ANY PARENT WHO has watched her child walk into school for their first day of kindergarten – or dropped her off at college some 13 years later – knows it is a day fraught with some amount of panic. You hope you have prepared her for the road ahead, but there is no way to know if your investment in your child’s education will lead to a successful life.

Massachusetts has just made a seven-year, $1.5 billion investment in helping to secure that road for thousands of public school students with the recent passage of the Student Opportunity Act, signed into law this past week. That infusion into public education in Massachusetts is unprecedented, but not unlike that first day of school in every child’s life, its success will be determined by what happens next.

We know that the landmark Education Reform Act of 1993 dramatically and measurably improved the performance of our public education system in Massachusetts as we have risen to become the top system in the country – and arguably the world – while outperforming national and international peers against key educational assessment standards.

The steady improvement in our students’ performance is attributed to the “grand bargain” that legislation struck between the state and local school districts: In exchange for a significant increase in state funding, the bulk of which went to districts with little capacity to raise the revenue, districts were required for the first time to align their curriculum to rigorous standards established by the state. In turn, school districts had to participate in state assessments designed to measure student performance.  Passage of the 10th grade test was required for graduation. It was met with more than a little grumbling and eventually grudging acceptance, but over time criticism grew that the funding did not keep up with costs and that achievement gaps between low-income students and their more affluent peers proved stubbornly persistent.

More than 25 years after passage of the Education Reform Act, we are not just throwing billions more dollars into the system — already among the top ten in the country for per capita spending. While the Student Opportunity Act is designed to ensure that all districts have the resources to address the diverse needs of the populations they serve, it is also designed to ensure that those resources are well spent.

Explicit in this new “grand bargain” is a built-in system of accountability that will require schools and districts to address the persistent gaps and change their practices when outcomes do not improve. It is well understood that no two districts are alike – particularly when comparing rural, urban and suburban systems – but if the investment is really going to close the gap, there needs to be a corresponding increase in performance and outcomes.

The beating heart of the new law is not accountability or punitive measures, but rather real equality of opportunity. It won’t eradicate poverty, but it is designed to reduce the effect of that poverty on a child’s life and future. It won’t eliminate the impact of trauma on a child’s ability to learn, but it can expand a school’s ability to intervene in those situations by ensuring they have the right personnel in place. It won’t smooth out every inequity between one district and the next or between two students performing at vastly different levels within the same district, but it puts the Commonwealth’s students on track to succeed.

While the cost of this new investment in public education has been getting the headlines, the more compelling story is how ambitious this new law truly is. In a state where public education was born, the new law doesn’t just affirm the right of every child to a public education but asserts the right of every student to an equitable education that favors no one above the other.

A rising tide may lift all boats, but the goal of our public education system in Massachusetts now is to make sure that all of those boats are watertight and seaworthy as they journey through that system.

Meet the Author
Alice Peisch is the House chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education.