School committees support stronger, lasting reform

Five steps to guide any “Education 2.0” initiative

SCHOOL COMMITTEE MEMBERS from across the Commonwealth are a varied but pragmatic bunch. During this budget season they are focused on balancing budgets and working with school administrators to reallocate existing funding in order to best meet the needs of their community’s children. Responding to the tremendous complexities of federal and state educational policies turns this already difficult job of managing local school districts into a game of whack-a-mole or “which unfunded mandated do we try to respond to this year?”

Patrick Murphy, Barnstable School Committee, president, Massachusetts Association of School Committees.

Patrick Murphy

So, it is with great interest that we are seeing several major education policy initiatives percolating in the Massachusetts Legislature. Senate President Stan Rosenberg has mentioned that it may even be time for major legislation in the form of an Education 2.0 initiative.

From the perspective of Massachusetts’ elected school committee leaders, who are charged with continuing to provide oversight of the best public schools in the nation, we would appreciate if the executive and legislative branch of our state government would incorporate our Education 2.0 vision into their agenda. Our focus is simple and direct: What can we do now that will absolutely improve educational outcomes for children over the next 20 years?

We have shared our answer in five straightforward action steps.

1. Do no harm

The decades of unintended consequences due to even the most well-intentioned unfunded or partially funded legislated mandates are now truly burdensome to local school districts. The governor did attempt to address some issues with the municipal modernization bill. The irony for school committee members was asking the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to figure out if any of its own regulatory behavior or other state agencies’ interactions with school districts was unneeded or burdensome. If the governor is serious about an effort to reduce burdens on school districts he should appoint members of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, and Massachusetts Association of School Business Officials to make objective recommendations.

2. Funding matters

The reality is the state budget remains under a structural operating deficit despite a state economy that benefits from a very low unemployment rate, high real estate prices, and historic stock market gains. This suggests the broad mix of revenue generating measures (yes, taxes!) needs to be modernized and updated immediately. Addressing this revenue problem while implementing the recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission can not be delayed any longer. The gap between our state’s poorest and wealthiest districts is unconscionable. Many of the state’s most rural communities as well as some of our urban gateway cities are caught in a downward funding spiral that demoralizes teaching staff and our school communities. The state needs to step up and recognize that our most challenged school districts require significantly more funding.

3. Great teachers make all the difference

When comparing Massachusetts’s system of public education to those of other leading nations the most glaring difference is in how we educate and professionally develop our teachers. Over the next 20 years, the only way the Commonwealth is going to maintain a world class public education system is to ensure we develop our own pipeline of world class teachers. This needs to be the top priority in any vision for Education 2.0. We need to push hard on the schools of education to update their curriculum, confirm their faculty are proactive practitioners, and only graduate students with world class teaching skill sets.

Increasingly, this means we need classroom teachers who have the capacity to differentiate their teaching style to meet a wider range of student challenges. Creating a competitive grand bargain to cover the undergraduate or graduate school costs of a highly select group of 2,000 new teachers each year to meet the pent up demand for top notch educators across the state would impact our school districts in a dramatic, long term way.

4. Fix what is broken

The voters overwhelming rejection of the charter school ballot initiative should have humbled and muted any of those in state office who believe that simply uttering the words “choice” allows one to avoid actually doing the hard work to build a thoughtful vision for the future of education policy across the Commonwealth.

Gov. Baker, who prides himself on fixing what is broken, has been poorly served by the folks who run his education policy efforts with their dreamy reliance on charter schools as the educational policy equivalent of a unicorn. The voters recognized the state’s current charter school legislation is fundamentally broken. The state’s charter school legislation and funding formula need to be fixed and existing charter schools need to start serving the most challenged students before any additional charter school seats are ever granted in Massachusetts. The people have spoken on this front.

5. Commit to Equity

 In a recent farewell column, outgoing US education secretary John King observed, “education is a ladder. Rung by rung, it helps people reach places that would otherwise be impossible to climb.” In Massachusetts, despite, our “first in the nation” status on many national and international achievement tests, we continue to grapple with substantial gaps in student outcomes— gaps that are often rooted in the stubborn barriers of poverty, race, disability, and language.

We need to take that difficult step, pull away from the table, and enact deliberate, thoughtful comprehensive legislation. We know what needs to be done: we need all our young students ready to learn; we need effective teachers in the classroom who can deliver challenging curriculum to a diverse student population; we need to collaborate with our community and statewide agencies for resources and programs that provide a safety net of services, and we need to guarantee equitable funding to ensure and sustain these efforts. We need legislative commitment, vision, and leadership to begin the process.

No one says it’s going to be easy or without controversy or struggle. But everyone knows it’s the only guarantee of success for all of our students—and our future as a state. The reality is that school committee members know that Massachusetts public schools range from good to world class. The handful of schools that are really struggling would benefit from a combination of experienced educational leadership, fewer regulatory mandates, and more funding.

Meet the Author

Patrick Murphy

President, Massachusetts Association of School Committees
Every year the state’s standardized testing system simply demonstrates what is already known. Our schools that serve lots of children with challenges and are poorly funded do not perform as well as other schools. We spend too much money on testing to allow this to be the same answer over the next 20 years.  The Massachusetts Association of School Committees welcomes our state’s executive and legislative leaders to build a new vision for Education 2.0.

Patrick Murphy is a member of the Barnstable School Committee and president of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.