Opinion

Opinion | Thomas F. Birmingham and William F. Weld

Mass. has to return to its high standards for education

Massachusetts public education is veering away from the combination of funding, standards, and accountability that has brought so much success.
Globe Staff/Adobe Stock

Its 25th anniversary is an appropriate time to reflect on the success of Massachusetts’ 1993 Education Reform Act. Yet instead of rededicating ourselves to all the work still to be done, the Commonwealth seems to be turning away from the core principles of an approach that brought unprecedented success.

In the early 1990s, Massachusetts’ broken educational standards and financing system were in urgent need of reform. Wide funding disparities existed between wealthy suburban districts and poor urban and rural ones. Due to the misguided practice of social promotion, students frequently graduated from high school without the academic preparation to succeed in college or the workplace. Parents who desperately sought alternatives for children trapped in failing public schools had few options.

The 1993 act included comprehensive measures to address these challenges. We are proud to have played central roles in the creation of this law in our former positions as governor and Senate chair of the Legislature’s Joint Education Committee.

Advertisement

Under reform, K-12 public education funding dramatically increased in return for high standards and accountability for results from all stakeholders. The law established a new school financing system, set high standards for students, and introduced statewide assessments, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System for measuring academic progress, and established charter schools to provide parents with more public school options.

Get Arguable in your inbox:
Jeff Jacoby on everything from politics to pet peeves to the passions of the day.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

The results were impressive: 13 consecutive years of rising SAT scores; our students ranking first in the nation in every category and every grade tested on the National Assessment of Educational Progress between 2005 and 2013, then again in 2017; and placing at or near the top on gold-standard international math and science tests.

Yet Massachusetts is veering away from the combination of funding, standards, and accountability that has brought so much success. For a decade after reform was enacted, public education was clearly the top priority of state government. State appropriations grew an average of 8 percent annually between 1993 and 2002, and the spending gap between affluent and poorer school districts narrowed.

But since 2002, funding has remained essentially flat when adjusted for inflation. As a result, socio-economic disparities are again widening. For instance, the Globe recently reported that Brockton spends $14,000 per student, while Weston spends $24,000. Brockton’s class size averages in the 30s; in Weston, the student-to-teacher ratio is 12 to 1.

In 2010, the Commonwealth replaced its best-in-the-nation English and math standards with national versions that cut the amount of classic literature and poetry that students learn by more than half and extends the time it takes to reach Algebra I, which is the key to higher math study.

Advertisement

Today Massachusetts has essentially the same English and math standards as Arkansas and Louisiana. Students in those states can’t possibly match Massachusetts’ performance, so the political reality is that the bar gets lowered so more can clear it.

The results of this change in education policy have been swift. After years of improvement, our progress has come to a halt. Massachusetts is among a minority of states whose NAEP scores have fallen since 2011 and others are catching up.

For more than two decades, the Commonwealth’s best weapon in the battle against wide achievement gaps has been charter schools. One study found that a single year in a Boston charter closed half the performance gap between white and African-American students in middle school math.

But a politically ill-advised ballot initiative has left charters with limited room to grow. When the charter cap was last raised, in 2010, the increase came with a requirement that new schools in the lowest-performing districts be operated by “proven providers” who already operate at least one successful Massachusetts charter. This stifled the innovation that was the reason charter schools were created by limiting the sector’s growth to replication of existing school models rather than encouraging continual development of new and better ones. Despite the schools’ remarkable performance, legislators continue to introduce measures to further hamstring charter schools.

It’s important for education policy to progress and change. Massachusetts leaders should draw on the hard-won successes achieved by the “grand bargain” of funding, high standards, and accountability, and continue to implement policies informed by those ideals.

Former Massachusetts Senate president Thomas F. Birmingham is a fellow at the Pioneer Institute. Former Massachusetts governor William F. Weld is a principal at ML Strategies.