State oversight critical in education bill

Legislature must maintain strong state role overseeing spending plans

AS HOUSE MEMBERS on Beacon Hill prepare to debate and vote Wednesday on the Student Opportunity Act, Massachusetts stands at a crucial moment in charting the course of education funding and improvement. For the sake of our students, families, and communities – as well as for the sake of our economy and democracy — it’s critical that we get it right.

The recently released 2019 MCAS results are just the latest of many data points highlighting the importance of this moment.  The results show, once again, that too many of our students — especially low-income students, students  of color, English learners and students with disabilities — are not getting the learning experiences and support they need and deserve. Consider:

  • Only a third of black, Latinx and low-income elementary and middle schoolers were on grade-level in English language arts.  Results were even lower in math.
  • Fewer than 1 in 5 English learners and students with disabilities were on grade-level in math and English language arts, respectively.
  • In most grades, student outcomes barely budged since 2017. While some districts are making progress for historically underserved students, others have stagnated or declined.
  • At the high school level, a new, more rigorous version of the MCAS revealed that roughly 1 in 3 black, Latinx and low-income students, respectively – and even fewer students with disabilities and English learners — have received the math preparation they need to be college/career ready.

These numbers aren’t just percentages on a page – they represent thousands of students, and the future of our Commonwealth. The 123,000 low-income students alone who scored below grade level in math could fill the TD Garden, DCU Center and MassMutual Center nearly three times over.  The total number of students scoring below grade level in reading could fill Gillette Stadium three and a half times. We absolutely must do better.

The good news is that lawmakers on Beacon Hill have the opportunity right now to position our schools and districts to turn these patterns around. In September, the Joint Committee on Education proposed the Student Opportunity Act – a bill that would increase funding for school districts by $1.5 billion in the next seven years, while requiring districts to put in place evidence-based strategies to eliminate disparities in opportunity and outcomes. The bill gives districts flexibility in how to use the new funding, but it also makes clear that Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will continue to play an important oversight and support role. The bill directs the state department to set clear goals for addressing disparities in achievement, for reviewing districts’ plans, and requiring districts to make changes where necessary.

The joint committee’s bill recognized three critical things:

  1. That money matters.
  2. That how money is spent matters.
  3. That the hard work of addressing disparities in achievement and opportunity may not always happen without outside pressure and support.

The proposal has broad backing from educator associations, the business community, and civil rights and education advocates.

Unfortunately, earlier this month the state Senate made changes to the Student Opportunity Act that weakened the state education department’s oversight authority, leaving even more decision-making to individual districts.

These changes pose a real danger to education equity. In the past, Massachusetts school districts have struggled to set goals or hold themselves accountable for progress. Moreover, as those of us advocating for educational justice in districts know all too well, superintendents and principals often face tremendous local pressure to change as little as possible, especially when those changes require confronting deep-seated beliefs about students’ ability to succeed, or shifting resources to better serve students who need them most.  Without outside pressure and support, even with additional funding, our students may not see the changes critical to their success — changes such as:

  • Reducing racial disparities in discipline through teacher training and investments in counselors and mental health services;
  • Replacing a patchwork of instructional resources with evidence-based curricula and providing teachers with support and coaching on implementation;
  • Opening up access to rigorous courses, including lab sciences and early college opportunities;
  • Establishing dual language immersion programs that not only help English learners master the English language, but allow monolingual English speakers to gain a second language as well;
  • Investing in strong family engagement, including building parent capacity to engage in school policy decisions.

The revised version of the bill reported out of the House Committee on Ways and Means on Monday preserves the important balance between local decision-making and DESE oversight and support. We urge lawmakers to uphold that balance.

Meet the Author
Meet the Author
Yes, the work of educational improvement will look different in every district, and should be driven by the people who know that district best – teachers, school and district leaders, families, and community advocates. But without state oversight, we risk spending millions of dollars on the same practices that have failed too many of our young people for years. Our students cannot afford that. We cannot afford that.

Henry Thomas III is the president and CEO of the Urban League of Springfield. Jennifer Davis Carey is the executive director of the Worcester Education Collaborative.