On education reform, Tom Birmingham stuck to his guns 

Liberal Democrat found common cause with libertarian-leaning Pioneer Institute on school policy 

EDUCATION REFORM ISSUES, and where a public official stands on them, have long defied easy categorization using the conventional yardstick of more liberal or more conservative positioning. 

That was on full display 30 years ago when a bipartisan coming together of Beacon Hill leaders ushered in passage of the landmark 1993 Education Reform Act. The law brought new standards and accountability measures to Massachusetts schools – along with billions of dollars in new state aid to districts, much of it directed through a highly progressive funding formula to the state’s poorest communities. The law also introduced charter schools to the state’s education mix.

The three principals who worked together to get to “yes” were the state’s notoriously tax-averse Republican governor, Bill Weld, and the liberal Democrats who co-chaired the Legislature’s education committee, Tom Birmingham in the Senate and Mark Roosevelt in the House. 

In more recent years, perhaps nothing illustrated better the ways education policy can make for strange bedfellows than Birmingham spending nearly a decade as a “distinguished senior fellow in education” at the Pioneer Institute. A Harvard-educated labor lawyer with a decidedly left-leaning outlook on issues of the day, Birmingham found a comfortable home at the free-market-oriented think tank when it came to education policy. 

“We’d laugh about it. We’d talk about it,” said Jim Stergios, the longtime executive director of Pioneer. “Tom and I would not agree about a budget, I’m sure. But there were lots of areas where we did agree.” Foremost, he said, was “social mobility and giving people an opportunity to rise.” 

Birmingham, who grew up in a triple-decker in working-class Chelsea and went on to become president of the state Senate before waging an unsuccessful run for governor in 2002, died last week at age 73. 

Birmingham’s backing of strong accountability measures and testing in public schools – and his strong support for charter schools – put him at odds with teachers unions and, increasingly, with a broader swath of the Democratic Party. But he never wavered from his belief in the full menu of reforms embedded in the 1993 education law. 

“He was an all-of-the-above guy on this,” Stergios said of Birmingham’s embrace of everything from charter schools to a robust set of vocational-technical high schools across the state. “Because he came from a place where there wasn’t so much opportunity, he saw what education could do for people’s lives.” 

That all-of-the-above belief was the underpinning of a 2016 op-ed Birmingham co-authored calling it hypocritical of a local NAACP official to chair the campaign opposing a ballot question to expand charter schools while strongly supporting the METCO program that buses Black students from Boston and Springfield to suburban districts. 

“Despite selection and funding processes that are demonstrably more democratic and more generous than METCO’s, charter schools are the subject of unrelenting hostility,” he wrote. “It’s hard to reconcile the positions of those who claim that charter schools ‘siphon’ money from school districts and ‘cream’ the best students, yet support METCO. The facts are clear: Both of these highly successful programs should be celebrated — and expanded.”

“He had a very large sense of the common good, and I think education was the expression of that,” said Jamie Gass, director of Pioneer’s Center for School Reform. 

Birmingham was in many ways an unlikely politician. “He was very idea driven. He wasn’t a backslapper,” said Stergios. 

Birmingham had a great sense of humor, “but wasn’t naturally suited to be a politician,” said Jack Corrigan, who served as a top aide to Gov. Michael Dukakis. “He was a little shy. He was perfectly fine going door to door and talking to anyone about issues. I never got the sense that he was comfortable selling himself as a person.”

“I think what motivated him was justice for the working class,” said Corrigan. “That, I think, was his driving principle, whether that was fighting for better wages and working conditions or a better education system for working class communities.”  

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

If that sometimes made for uncomfortable tension, with Birmingham’s labor allies and some liberals not happy with his stands on education policy, he was fine with that in a way that is increasingly uncommon, said Stergios. 

“People knew he was true to who he was,” he said. “And by bucking every once in a while your most loyal supporters, people respect that. I don’t see that too much anymore.”