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SCOT LEHIGH

A bad first bid on new education funding

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It was quite the crowd of municipal officials, union leaders, social justice activists, and educators that gathered at the State House on Wednesday. Late morning gave way to early afternoon as speaker after speaker came to the podium and talked.

And talked.

And talked some more.

Their message: We want more money for education — and we want it now.

And we don’t want any strings attached.

Nothing wrong with the first part of that message, certainly. This, after all, is a state that lives on its brains; its public schools need to be well funded, and a special commission noted a few years back that the current funding formula underestimates the real education costs of serving low-income, special education, and English-language-learning students. All of Beacon Hill’s major players are on board with the notion of a significant new infusion of state education dollars.

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Still, there was something a little odd about the gathering led by state Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz. For one, Senate President Karen Spilka hasn’t even named her leadership team yet, which means no one really knows who the Senate’s point person on education policy will be going forward. Which made one wonder if Chang-Diaz, who has held that chairmanship in the past, is hoping to force Spilka’s hand by establishing herself as the champion of the union-and-district stakeholders.

It also looks like Chang-Diaz was trying to steal a march on Governor Charlie Baker. Just reelected overwhelmingly, Baker said in his recent inaugural address that he will be proposing more money for education, but that he wants to target some of it toward proven approaches.

His proposal, expected later this month, will be a big moment for the governor, and he needs to be bold. Winning significant change may strain his govern-by-consensus approach. But in Jeff Riley, the state’s new education commissioner, he certainly has an able partner. As a BPS principal and as Lawrence’s superintendent, Riley demonstrated his ability to bring real change at both the school and district level.

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The Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, the progressive business group that played a key role in the state’s landmark 1993 education reform law, has called for an innovation fund, in the neighborhood of $200 million, that would make grants that married flexibility with accountability. The hope is that such funding would spur imaginative, carefully monitored new educational initiatives.

“It could go for third-grade reading, it could go for college readiness,” said Linda Noonan, who leaves next week after almost 14 years as the alliance’s widely respected executive director. “It isn’t just saying, ‘We need money, trust us’; it is saying, ‘We need money, and we are going to use it effectively.’ ”

Certainly we know some things that work well. A longer school day is one of them. (On a smaller level, so is intensive small-group instruction during school vacation weeks, and regular tutoring sessions.) But we also know it takes a real push to bring that about.

Chang-Diaz doesn’t want any new conditions, however. When the senator met with the Globe editorial board on Monday, she repeatedly rejected that suggestion, saying the education system already has enough accountability.

A demand for no-strings-attached dollars was an apparent point of agreement for the Chang-Diaz coalition, which includes as an instrumental player the accountability-averse Massachusetts Teachers Association. One of its top priorities has been to do away with the MCAS and reduce the state’s ability to intervene in failing schools.

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When I asked the municipal officials at Wednesday’s press conference whether they thought some of the new dollars should go for things like longer school days or vacation-week tutoring that have benefited their communities’ kids, the answer seemed strained: Yes, those programs have a salutary effect, but this particular infusion of money should all be for the basics.

Let’s be real here. One of the lessons of this state’s quarter-century educational improvement effort is that school-district inertia is powerful, which makes change difficult. To bring it about, districts require a friendly but firm push forward from the state level.

To adopt a money-only approach would be more than myopic. It would mean missing a once-in-a-decade educational opportunity.


Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.