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OPINION

MTA chief Max Page bulls clumsily about in the public-policy shop

Thwarted at the State House, Page looks to the 2024 ballot to further his anti-MCAS quest.

Max Page, president of the Mass Teachers Association, spoke at a rally for a fair teachers contract outside of Weymouth Town Hall, on March 2.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

If you’ve always liked the idiom but have never had a chance to observe an actual bull in a china shop, here’s the next best thing: Watch Max Page, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, as he goes about his, um, male bovine maneuvers in the state’s education-policy emporium.

Page’s style-setting paw-snort-and-charge performance came during his first appearance as MTA chief before the state board of education, when he informed board members that their preoccupation with educating students for jobs and college was a trifling capitalist concern, that they were akin to a teenager obsessed with a mood ring, and that he and his MTA troops were intent on replacing them with members who saw things the union’s way.

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This approach, one schooled in the subtle art of public policy might have cautioned, perhaps wasn’t the most felicitous way to commence a campaign of political persuasion. Not given the sustained bipartisan 30-year effort Massachusetts public officials have made to improve education.

The MTA’s real concern, of course, is that MCAS data focuses attention on failing schools, which can then be subject to state intervention. The union rhetoric, however, is invariably (and tediously) couched in the garb of what’s good for students, which is why its arguments always seem so strained. As oppressive, demoralizing, punitive, and unfair as the MTA perpetually claims the MCAS are, in the real world, expecting high school students to achieve a basic mastery of 10th-grade math, English, and a branch of science prior to being awarded a high school diploma really doesn’t seem all that onerous.

Page’s credibility — and the MTA’s case for eliminating the MCAS as a graduation requirement — suffered a serious blow in April when it came to light that he and Citizens for Public Schools, the MTA’s de facto think tank and, um, echo chamber, were grossly exaggerating the number of students kept from graduating solely because they’d failed the MCAS.

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No wonder, then, that the MTA’s push to nix the graduation exam is hobbling lamely about at the State House in search of true footing. Still, it’s in better health than Page’s push to grant teachers the right to strike. So maladroit was his advocacy there that Governor Maura Healey, House Speaker Ronald Mariano, and Senate President Karen Spilka employed terse verbal cattle prods to run the idea from the building.

Which brings us to the anti-MCAS ballot question Page now talks of launching.

A week or so ago, he floated some online polling by a boutique (read: virtually unknown) firm purporting to show that by 73 percent to 27 percent, Massachusetts voters surveyed favor nixing the MCAS as a graduation requirement.

The pollster who did the survey didn’t return my phone call, and the MTA wouldn’t give me the poll’s internals.

But to anyone who has followed this debate, those numbers appear several leagues removed from real public sentiment on the matter.

Here’s my best guess as to why: The question that specifically notes the MTA proposal would eliminate the MCAS as a graduation requirement says that instead, schools would be required “to certify students for graduation if they demonstrated a mastery” of the academic skills required by the state. It doesn’t, however, say how — or explain the difficulty of making such an assessment without an exam. Contrariwise, the question about establishing a commission to create an alternative assessment system doesn’t specify that voting for that commission would eliminate the MCAS as a graduation requirement.

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Now, public sentiment on the MCAS is clearly mixed. A March survey that MassINC’s well-regarded polling unit did for Democrats for Education Reform - Massachusetts showed considerable anti-MCAS sentiment but a very different split: By 51 percent to 43 percent, voters opposed the MCAS as a graduation requirement.

What’s more, a March MTA poll found that though people overall have an unfavorable view of the MCAS (42 percent to 35 percent), they still support it as a graduation requirement, 45 percent to 34 percent. “These mixed feelings appear to be based on the fact that voters believe there must be some sort of measurement to evaluate students and schools, and the MCAS scores — imperfect as they are — serve this need,” concluded the polling firm.

Hmm. What would serve that need if the MTA’s possible ballot proposal passed? The union couldn’t produce a plan for me. No one I talked to in the education space has seen or heard of a developed, scalable alternative. The MTA’s latest proposed legislation offers nothing beyond the creation of a commission to develop a plan.

“It’s just smoke,” one labor source said.

The ballot question, then, would amount to an effort to persuade voters to nix the MCAS graduation exam based on vague blandishments about developing a replacement later.

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That is, just another cock-and-bull scheme from today’s MTA.


Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at scot.lehigh@globe.com. Follow him @GlobeScotLehigh.