By Stephen E. Gorrie
Stephen Gorrie is the former president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.
The Education Reform Act of 1993 has brought significant benefits as well as a measure of discord to our public schools. How the state responds to the current fiscal crisis will determine if the most positive developments under education reform continue to progress.
The good news: Education reform money has helped level the playing field for tens of thousands of students in our less affluent communities. And education reform has provided resources to help schools across the state develop new programs, restore and revitalize old programs, hire new teachers, and create new professional development opportunities.
The bad news: Some of the new state regulations under education reform are burdensome, inequitable, and overly restrictive. The most controversial of these regulations is the MCAS graduation requirement. Teachers do not oppose testing- they administer tests all the time in their classrooms. However, a large majority of teachers (four out of five) do oppose the state's current MCAS graduation requirement. A growing number also are concerned about the state's plan to start using MCAS scores in college admissions.
Lest it seem that the bad news outweighs the good, let me state a firm conviction: The opportunity still remains to reach the lofty goals that were set by the Education Reform Act:
- To ensure that all students achieve high standards;
- To enhance the quality and professionalism of teachers and administrators; and
- To support accountability and improvement in all schools.
The Act established a "foundation budget" to ensure that each district had adequate funding, regardless of the wealth of the local community. It committed the state to increasing education aid over a seven-year period so that each school district would be "at foundation" in the 1999-2000 school year. By design, most of the aid was directed to low-income, property tax-poor communities. This commitment to educational adequacy was not simply adopted as a law; it was also mandated by the Supreme Judicial Court's landmark 1993 decision, McDuffy v. Secretary of the Executive Office of Education.
During the boom years of the 1990s, the Legislature and Governor did fulfill their financial commitments under education reform. That commitment is paying off. Our students have been performing better on national exams, including the SAT, and Massachusetts recently received an "A" in a national study rating how well states are preparing their students for college.
Despite this progress, much more needs to be done. Education advocates-including the MTA-have researched the rising costs of education and the growing requirements on districts, schools, and students. They have determined that the foundation budget levels established in 1993 are not adequate to ensure that all students are able to meet new state academic standards.
The MTA, among others, wants the state revise the foundation budget so that state aid is available to help districts implement several important priorities, including:
- Reducing class size, especially in grades K-3;
- Providing high-quality mentoring programs for new teachers and high-quality professional development for both new and experienced teachers;
- Establishing alternative programs for chronically disruptive students;
- Promoting more affordable early childhood education services and full-day kindergarten programs in every district.
Sadly, these ambitious plans have been put on hold, and some existing programs have been slashed as a result of the state budget crisis. Even larger cuts in state aid are being threatened, causing many districts to develop plans for substantial lay-offs, reductions in textbooks and supplies, delays in school building improvements, and the dismantling of important programs such as foreign languages, the arts, and Advanced Placement courses.
Teachers across the state are joining parents in working to counter these threats. The MTA is helping local associations promote needed overrides of Proposition 2 1/2 , the tax-cutting measure that limits how much property taxes a community may raise. We also are working at the grassroots level to convince legislators to prioritize funding for public schools. To this end, we support freezing the reduction in the state income tax and taxing capital gains at the same rate as ordinary income-as it is taxed in most states.
Raising taxes is not popular, but neither is undermining a public school system that serves nearly one million children in Massachusetts. Keeping the promise of education reform is possible if state leaders remain committed, flexible, and open-minded. If they really want to know what is needed to make schools work better for students, they should ask the teachers.