The education bill now before the Legislature went into the Senate debate as a carefully crafted compromise — and came out with a key provision unacceptably altered.
The original version included an additional $1.5 billion in state education funding ramped up over seven years, something the urban districts in particular, and teachers and superintendents and local leaders in general, want. But there was also enough accountability — or at least enough of a lever to prompt change — to satisfy those who know districts occasionally need a firm nudge to make the difficult decisions necessary to improve school quality.
That came in the form of a requirement that districts detail the strategies they plan to use to close achievement gaps. The original legislation gave the state education commissioner the ability to critique those plans; if he judged them inadequate, districts would have had to revise them. No heavy hammer there. Rather, the idea was that data, transparency, and an independent critique of a district’s plans by the commissioner would create pressure for effective action.
But during debate, senators approved a teachers-union-backed amendment that upset the bill’s careful balance. That amendment removes the commissioner’s power to reject district plans, replacing it with language saying that he “may recommend” changes to them. Left unsaid: If districts disagree with the commissioner’s recommendations — and districts often shy away from difficult actions — they are free to ignore those recommendations.
One of the amendment sponsors argued, laughably, that the change was meant to clarify and strengthen the commissioner’s power. Clarify is certainly correct, but unless strengthen has taken on a different legislative meaning — “gut,” say, or perhaps a more subtle “undercut” or “erode” — the second part of that statement is simply silly.
That change has understandably upset advocates of marrying money with accountability, an approach that has long undergirded education reform in Massachusetts.
“I am disappointed,” says Paul Reville , former state secretary of education under governor Deval Patrick. “I think it walks back what was a reasonable compromise. The Senate has kind of gone through the back door to undermine that.”
One happy party was the Massachusetts Teachers Association, whose broader anti-accountability agenda includes eliminating the MCAS graduation exam. Despite the state’s successful quarter-century bipartisan commitment to improving public education, the union too often seems to view state government as an adversary if and when it does anything beyond providing public dollars for districts. Its website includes this snippet describing the amendment: “It also eliminates provisions that would have tightened the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s bureaucratic hold on districts.”
The Senate developments have created problems for the House. The accountability arrangement, the product of long negotiations, had been agreed on by the relevant leaders of both chambers beforehand. But the Senate leadership’s compromise-altering collapse has put the House in the politically difficult position of having to take a tough vote to repair the Senate damage.
If the House were to take its cue from the Senate’s action, it might react by cranking up the accountability beyond what was in the original bill. That, however, would risk setting up a contentious conference dynamic, one that could see this entire effort fall apart. It’s better, then, that the House restore the bill’s original language. Governor Baker should also step up here to forcefully support such a House effort.
As lawmakers and stakeholders move forward, it’s important to recall that last year, with a different Senate education chair, attempts to pass a new education funding bill broke down in acrimony. This year, under Representative Alice Peisch and Senator Jason Lewis, the effort has come a long, laudable way. In no small part, that progress was achieved by setting aside hard-line positions and embracing compromise. The deal the two legislators had brokered left no one ecstatic, but kept most stakeholders content enough to support the legislation.
But after the Senate’s ill-advised action, that consensus is at risk of falling part. It is now up to the House to restore this important legislation’s delicate balance.