Massachusetts Attorney General Andrea Joy Campbell certified nearly three dozen potential ballot questions on Wednesday — including an effort to drop the MCAS high school graduation requirement — a critical step in a lengthy process that aims to get questions before voters next year.
The questions touch upon a wide range of issues affecting residents and workers across the Commonwealth and include: limiting increases on housing rentals, suspending state gas taxes under certain conditions, establishing ride-hailing drivers as independent contractors, allowing voters to register at the polls on election day, and beefing up state law so state Auditor Diana DiZoglio can formally audit the Legislature.
Debate over abolishing the MCAS graduation requirement, which is being pushed by the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state’s largest educator union, is expected to be among the most contentious and could turn into an expensive fight. It comes seven years after the overwhelming defeat of a ballot question that would have expanded charter schools, which shattered state records for ballot campaign spending at that time.
“Today’s decision by the state Attorney General’s office will allow us to make the case directly to voters at the ballot box as to why we must replace the harmful graduation requirement tied to the MCAS exams,” MTA president Max Page and vice president Deb McCarthy said in a joint statement.
The teachers association has long been concerned that requiring students to pass the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams in order to receive a high school diploma creates immense inequities in public schools, rewarding students who are good test takers, while unnecessarily punishing those who struggle with standardized tests, especially students with learning or physical disabilities or who are not fluent in English.
Huge gaps in scores also exist among students of different racial backgrounds.
The proposed question would ask voters to eliminate the MCAS graduation requirement, established under the 1993 Education Reform Act and enacted a decade later, and instead would require students to complete coursework that is consistent with the state’s academic standards to receive their high school diplomas. The MCAS is based on those standards.
Currently, high school students must pass the MCAS in English, math, and science to earn a diploma. More than 700 high school students each year typically don’t receive a diploma because they didn’t pass the tests, according to state data, and instead received “certificates of attainment,” which are awarded to students who only satisfied local graduation requirements.
But critics of MCAS testing say the numbers are even higher than that, noting that a number of students who have repeatedly failed MCAS quit school before commencement.
Dropping the requirement has generated opposition from a number of education advocacy organizations tied to the business community as well as a long line of former state education leaders who served under Democratic and Republican governors.
“MCAS has proven to be a reliable indicator of a student’s college and career readiness and eliminating it as a graduation requirement would amount to a huge step backward in the Commonwealth’s quest to ensure that all Massachusetts high school graduates acquire a basic mastery of the subject areas needed to be successful in their futures,” the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, the Pioneer Institute, and several other organizations said in a joint statement Wednesday.
If voters approve the question, MCAS testing would continue in grades 3-8 and in high school, a requirement under federal law. That means state education officials will still be able to use MCAS scores to judge school performance and hold local officials accountable.
The AG’s office also certified a second ballot question that would abolish the MCAS graduation requirement that was submitted by a Lexington mother, Shelley E. Scruggs. But Scruggs has subsequently decided to join forces with the MTA on its question.
Only a small portion of the ballot questions are expected to survive the vetting process over the next year. Organizers behind the 31 ballot initiatives that seek to change state law are hoping their questions will make it onto the November 2024 state election ballots, while three proposed constitutional amendments, if successful, could appear on the 2026 ballots.
Other approved questions include: a measure that would gradually increase the minimum wage for tipped workers to be the same as the general minimum wage; a proposal that would regulate and tax psychedelic substances, such as psilocybin mushrooms; and a proposed law requiring voters to present photo identification before voting.
The list of potential ballot initiatives already has been whittled down, with Campbell’s office rejecting seven questions in recent weeks that were submitted by last month’s deadline. Among those rejected: limiting political spending by “foreign-influenced businesses” and establishing a “Non-Partisan Top Five Election System,” which would would replacing party primaries for certain elected offices with a “top-five preliminary.”
The prevailing campaigns will need to collect 74,574 signatures and file them with local officials by Nov. 22, and then with the secretary of state’s office by Dec. 6.
Ballot questions with enough certified signatures will head to the Legislature in January 2024, where lawmakers can approve them, propose a substitute or decide not to act. If lawmakers don’t take action by May 1, campaigns must collect another 12,429 signatures and file them with local officials by June 19, then the secretary of state’s office by July 3, in order to make the ballot.
The process will likely put the refusal of House and Senate leaders to allow DiZoglio to audit their chambers back in the spotlight. DiZoglio, a Methuen Democrat who previously served as a state representative and state senator, has been pushing for months to audit the House and Senate, but top Democrats have argued she does not have the authority. In July, DiZoglio announced she will pursue litigation against both chambers, accusing leaders of repeatedly stonewalling her audit attempts.