As former state legislators, we know agreement on education policy is difficult to achieve. Notwithstanding that reality, there appears to be widespread acknowledgment that the state is falling short of its obligation to ensure that every student receives a quality education.
Some 25 years after the Education Reform Act, too many low-income and students of color have dramatically different educational outcomes than their white and higher-income peers.
The question for Governor Baker and the legislature is how the Commonwealth should respond. Should it simply update the formula through which the state sends funding to local school districts and hope for the best? Or, should the state reconsider how it directs state aid so dollars target the students most in need? This isn’t just a money question. It is a moral question rooted in each generation’s obligation to educate the next.
Massachusetts has the opportunity to focus its attention on supporting what works, thereby providing all students with the education they need to reach their potential. At this once-in-a-generation moment of opportunity, the state should review lessons learned during the nationally recognized turnaround of the Lawrence Public Schools under state receiver Jeff Riley, now commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The 2010 Achievement Gap Act addressed inequalities in our education system by giving the state and school districts bold new tools to address underperformance. Given its history, Lawrence Public Schools was first in line for radical change.
Lawrence Public Schools was a failed system, with some of the worst outcomes in the state. Its four-year high school graduation rate was 47 percent — meaning that less than half of high school students graduated. Less than 20 percent of eighth-graders scored proficient or advanced in math while only 50 percent scored the same on the eighth-grade English language arts MCAS. The annual dropout rate was 9.4 percent.
The improvement in Lawrence Public Schools is one of the most dramatic public policy successes of recent years in Massachusetts and the country. The graduation rate has increased by almost half, while the drop-out rate has plummeted to 3.7 percent. That translates into real impact: 25 percent of all students were not graduating before and now they are getting a diploma.
Test scores have also improved. The percentage of students scoring advanced or proficient on MCAS tests has steadily increased through receivership.
Meanwhile, 30 miles down Route 93, a different picture has materialized. Boston Public Schools spends 36 percent more per student than Lawrence, yet Lawrence has a higher four-year graduation rate than Boston for both Hispanic students and high-need students.
More than 25 years after the Education Reform Act of 1993, nearly two-thirds of Boston Public Schools’ students are in the bottom 25 percent of schools statewide. More than 33,000 children each year are facing an unconscionably limited future because Boston is failing to meet its obligation to provide a high-quality education.
Each district’s spending adds another layer to this analysis. In 2010, Lawrence spent $13,955 per pupil compared to Boston’s $17,524. Between 2010 and 2017, Boston increased its per pupil spending at a much greater rate than Lawrence. While Boston increased its per pupil spending by $2,779, Lawrence increased its per pupil spending by just $932.
Lawrence’s receivership shows that academic performance can be substantially improved without a massive infusion of funds. Lawrence’s method of cutting the central office, reforming the teacher contract, partnering with school-management organizations, and expanding real learning time yielded results for kids. By deploying existing resources more wisely and using strategies that empower school leaders and teachers, change is possible.
As debate swirls about how to direct state aid, applying the lessons learned from Lawrence will lead to greater educational outcomes for all students, regardless of their socioeconomic standing. The renewal of Lawrence Public Schools shows what is possible when the state spurs progress by intervening in districts most in need. It is time for stronger state action in Boston and across our state to ensure our underserved students are given tools to succeed. Anything less than strong intervention consigns tens of thousands of kids to life outcomes no one wants for their own children.
Many education advocates are seeking more state money for education without strong measures to ensure the money is spent in ways that bolster student achievement. The comparison of Lawrence and Boston demonstrates how this focus is misguided. Lawrence’s improvements and Boston’s stagnation show that more money alone is insufficient to drive improvements.
To achieve results like Lawrence’s turnaround in communities across the Commonwealth, the state must demand changes or intervene to ensure that more funding translates into results for our poorest communities and most vulnerable students.
Martha M. Walz was a state representative from Boston from 2005 to 2013 and was the lead author of the Achievement Gap Act of 2010. She is a registered lobbyist, whose clients include education policy groups. Juana B. Matias was a state representative from Lawrence from 2017 to 2018.