Governor-elect Charlie Baker is an unabashed supporter of lifting the cap on independent charter schools, a bit of a skeptic on the primacy of early childhood education, and favors tough statewide assessment tests. He has absorbed many of the lessons of the 20-year education reform movement in Massachusetts. But his election coincides with a backlash against education reform on the part of school boards, teachers unions, and some parents. This suggests a rocky start on the K-12 front for the Baker administration.
Baker’s best strategy would be to keep his attention on the solid core of education reform — closing the academic achievement gap between mostly urban minority students and their white suburban counterparts. It’s a matter of great urgency. State education officials point to demographic changes that will result in a sharp dropoff in the population of white high school graduates, 60 percent of whom now go on to earn college degrees. The state’s economy will increasingly depend on preparing black and Hispanic students for success in college and careers. Without them, thousands of jobs will go wanting.
Normally, Baker is a details guy. But on education issues, he tends to get caught up in atmospherics. Baker speaks, for example, about the need to attract charismatic school principals who practice “creative noncompliance” when it comes to dealing with union work rules and bureaucratic interference. That paints a nice picture. But it is also a simplistic one. There’s a lot more that goes into turning around an underperforming school — including the need to increase the level of parent involvement.
New efforts to undermine the expansion of charter schools will undoubtedly be launched during the next legislative session. The recent retirement of some pro-charter legislators means that the governor’s office must be prepared to show greater leadership. The charter school movement — with its commitment to longer school days and flexible hiring — still represents the best chance for low income, urban students to perform on par with their suburban counterparts. And until the achievement gap is a thing of the past, it is foolish to cap the growth of successful charter schools.
Baker should expect stiff resistance, especially from Barbara Madeloni, the new president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. Madeloni, who represents more than 100,000 educators, has taken a hard line against standardized student tests, certain teacher assessments, and the Common Core national education standards. The MTA, however, does not represent many of the underperforming urban school districts in Massachusetts. Pulling back on accountability measures would set back poor school districts by decades.
Somewhat surprisingly, the expansion of pre-kindergarten seats dominated the gubernatorial debates on education. Baker suggested that the returns would be poor on investing the $1.5 billion needed annually to adopt universal pre-K in Massachusetts. And he cited studies showing that the benefits of early education are lost by third grade when children attend underperforming elementary schools. He would prefer, therefore, to concentrate his efforts on the elementary grades. That makes some sense. But it’s hard to argue with the wisdom of getting children ready for school, especially those from families who aren’t doing that preparation work now. Along with everything else on his school to-do list, Baker will need to do more for the roughly 16,000 children who now linger on waiting lists for state-subsidized early education.