Funding plus reform right equation for education legislation

State leaders should stay true to successful 1993 approach

NOTWITHSTANDING JOHN ADAMS’S almost sacred words enshrined in the Massachusetts Constitution, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was a Johnny come lately with respect to state aid to education, with its earliest efforts being enacted after World War II. In 1993, we changed all that, recommitting in earnest to Adams’s great dictate that the Commonwealth’s government “cherish” its schools.

Spearheaded by Bill Weld, Tom Birmingham, and Mark Roosevelt, the Education Reform Act of 1993 mustered a coalition reflective of its urgency. That coalition sought increased funding, especially directed toward students in less affluent school districts. The business community, which played a key role in this process, additionally sought standards for our students and schools. The conviction behind the resulting legislation was clear: Districts across the Commonwealth needed more funding to educate students adequately, but they also needed measures in place to ensure that better outcomes resulted from that funding. That formula has made Massachusetts the country’s leader in public education.

A generation later, as state leaders contemplate a major update to the state’s education funding formula as well as potential new accountability measures, Massachusetts is a very different state.

We are now predominantly a high-income state, but sadly the delta between the haves and the have-nots has increased precipitously, for a host of reasons. As Massachusetts has flourished in a modernizing economy, urban school districts have seen increasing populations of students from low-income families, special needs students, and students for whom English is not their first language. Statewide, 22 percent of Massachusetts students are now English language learners, compared to just 5 percent in 1994. On the 10th grade MCAS, proficiency has risen from 1998 levels of 38 percent in English language arts and 24 percent in mathematics to 91 percent in ELA today, and 78 percent in mathematics. These improvements, however, have been unevenly distributed. Only 66 percent of Boston 10th graders are proficient in mathematics, and 82 percent in English language arts. In New Bedford, the numbers are 60 percent in English and 44 percent in math.

Horace Mann called education “the great equalizer of the conditions of men.” (photo via Creative Commons)

At the same time, we are no longer Taxachusetts. Most every benchmark suggests we are in the middle of the pack with respect to taxation, certainly less onerous than in California, Illinois, and New York.

With a high level of need and capital to expend—financial, intellectual, and civic—now is a good time to take bold steps to help the young people of Massachusetts.

I bear the scars of battle from difficult debates many decades ago while I served on the Boston City Council. Premised upon that experience and my having studied and observed these issues for some 50 years as a citizen and as the father of three, I believe there should be some very basic principles in any bill:

  1. We should not run away from standards for students or for teachers. In 1993, we understood that money alone would not solve the deep problems plaguing our schools; standards and reforms also were crucial. In this moment, with persistent achievement gaps and an even more diverse student population, the need for innovative solutions is even greater. We should renew the revenue-and-reform spirit of the 1993 law, not ignore reform or weaken the accountability already in place. Rigor is a good thing; excellence should be celebrated rather than denigrated.
  2. We should provide every family a wide range of public school options. Massachusetts boasts excellent public schools of every kind, district and charter. We should encourage and learn from any public school that serves students well. Public education should never become a monopoly; that means public charter schools, public school choice, vocational-technical schools, pilot schools, and a wide range of options, including some that may not yet have been conceived or developed. 
  3. Our schools should not wallow in the past. The 1993 law recognized that new ideas were needed to address the complex and evolving problems behind educational inequity. Any successful bill now will do the same, encouraging innovation and rewarding districts for finding novel solutions. We should welcome and encourage ideas like bilingual education to prepare our students for the remainder of the 21st century.

The Commonwealth must step up financially and level the playing field. Children from affluent communities benefit from a robust tax base, Proposition 2½ tax overrides, the Community Preservation Act, and parental support. The state rightfully takes responsibility for levelling the playing field by providing aid to districts without similar resources. We cannot guarantee equal results, but we must insist upon equal opportunity for all.

Funding can only get us part of the way to this goal. Equal opportunity also means updating how students learn. To that end, 2019 is not a time for gradualism or incrementalism, timidity or political cowardice. Nor can we retreat from the progress of the past generation. Now is the time to redouble our efforts to level the playing field through both funding and innovation. As many others have said, we need both more and better.

Meet the Author

Massachusetts nurtured the new world’s first school – Boston Latin School – which opened in 1635. Going back to the time of Horace Mann, Massachusetts has always been in the forefront of educational change. If we are successful, 2019 will be acknowledged by historians of the future as being the milestone year during which we acknowledged, as Mann did, that “education is the great equalizer” by passing a bill worthy of the Commonwealth’s history and legacy.

Lawrence S. DiCara is an attorney and former Boston city councilor.