Patrick reveals a big appetite for education reform

INTRO TEXT The unveiling of the Readiness Project should dispel any doubt that Gov. Deval Patrick sees himself as the master builder of the next epoch of education reform. “Our goal is to reinvent and re-engineer an entire system and all of its components,” said Patrick during his address at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in June. “We are not tinkering.”

Incoming Secretary of Education Paul Reville couldn’t resist an architecture reference of his own. Paraphrasing Bob the Builder, the construction crew chief of children’s television fame, he asked the audience, “Can we do it?” and got a resounding “Yes, we can” back.

Crowd-pleasing rhetoric aside, has the process of constructing a new public education framework actually overwhelmed the policy? The lineup of Readiness Project goals is dizzying. They include the elimination of persistent achievement gaps among poor and minority children; a push to attract, train, and retain highly qualified teachers; and the preparation of all students for success in their families, their communities, and the 21st-century global economy.

The multiyear program covers a vast range of initiatives, such as reducing class sizes in early elementary grades in high-needs school districts; establishing free tuition to community colleges; consolidating some of the state’s 391 school districts; and creating “Readiness Passports,” a statewide academic and social progress tracking system.

This second phase of education reform is unfolding in a very different climate from the first one. Fifteen years ago, it was the Supreme Judicial Court, not the governor’s Corner Office, that mobilized action on public education. In McDuffy v. Secretary of the Executive Office of Education, the justices ruled that Massachusetts had shirked its constitutional duty to provide every child with an adequate education by failing to provide equitable funding for public education across state school districts.

Signed into law shortly after that decision, the Education Reform Act was a grand bargain between a highly motivated Legislature and a business community that united behind the view that revamping state aid to schools, together with demanding higher achievement standards and greater accountability, was necessary for jumpstarting the state’s education system.

Although a sense of urgency is palpable in the Patrick administration and among the stakeholders who participated in the year-long Readiness Project, no external actor, such as the court system, is poised to compel results if progress doesn’t materialize.

This is the right time for assessing education reform since significant work remains to be done, particularly in urban schools, says former Fall River mayor Ed Lambert, a co-author of the 1993 legislation. Fifteen years ago, however, there was a consensus that something big needed to happen, he says, adding, “I’m not sure that exists right now.”

The depth and breadth of the vision also presents challenges. That a project incorporating the designs of more than 200 stakeholders took a year to come to fruition is not surprising, especially given the sweeping transformations that Patrick wants to achieve. Even so, some observers say that the Readiness Project puts too much on the table. They argue that the design phase has taken too long and has been detached from a legislative program or the means to pay for one.

“If you don’t have that focus to say, ‘I need this,’ it’s not going to get done,” says Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, a strong proponent of charter schools.

The range of goals makes prioritization difficult for the Legislature, according to Rep. Patricia Haddad of Somerset, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Education and a member of the project’s leadership council. She compares the plan to a jigsaw puzzle. “You pick up a piece and look at it; if it doesn’t fit, you put it down,” the Democratic legislator says. “[The priorities] are going to be very deliberative around what we can afford right now.”

What Massachusetts can afford is the biggest unknown. The financial issues have been delegated to another new group, a Readiness Finance Commission headed by John Fish, president and CEO of Suffolk Construction Co., and Gloria Larson, president of Bentley College. The commission is scheduled to deliver a report on project costs and savings, reforms, and possible new revenues in mid-November — the week after an election featuring a ballot question that poses a repeal of the state income tax.

Patrick says that revenue-wise, everything is on the table. But the sums required may be gargantuan. The Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, which has already crunched some estimates, found that free community colleges alone could set the state back $125 million to $540 million.

The finance commission’s deliberations will add more notches to an already protracted timeline. And once lawmakers have findings in hand, the conversations about where education reform goes will start over again.

Meet the Author

Gabrielle Gurley

Senior Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

If the first half year of an important initiative makes or breaks it, then the Readiness Project has entered a period of uncertainty that its architects can ill-afford.

“We are going to sit for the next six months trying to figure out what can be done, what can’t be done, what goes first, and what goes second,” says Stergios. “[But] we can’t know that until we see what the funding looks like.”