Education Reform

Overview

Written into law as The Education Reform Act of 1993, education reform in Massachusetts has antecedents in Webby v. Dukakis, a lawsuit filed in 1978 against the administration of Governor Michael Dukakis. The suit charged that inequities in the funding of public schools deprived students in Massachusetts' poorest communities of the opportunity to receive an adequate education.

In 1978—as today—local property taxes provided the bulk of funding for public schools. As a result, students from property-rich districts enjoyed significantly higher per-capita funding for their public school education than did students from property-poor districts. Urban teachers and administrators struggled to educate their students despite outdated textbooks, decaying facilities, overwhelming class sizes, and a lack of basic supplies.

For several years, and under various names, the suit wound its way through the courts. Twice, when the state passed legislation to increase support for education, action was suspended by the plaintiffs. But when an economic downturn put an end to the so-called "Massachusetts Miracle," a cash-strapped state government withdrew funding for reform. In 1990, the plaintiffs filed a "restated complaint," and the suit once again became active, this time as McDuffy v. Robertson.

A decision came in 1993, when Massachusetts' Supreme Judicial Court issued a landmark ruling in favor of the plaintiffs. At the core of the decision was the Massachusetts Constitution, which declares "it shall be the duty of the legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this Commonwealth, to cherish the...public schools and grammar schools." While the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the state had failed in its mandated duty, the court left the Massachusetts Legislature to remedy the situation.

The remedy came quickly, in the guise of the Education Reform Act of 1993, a comprehensive restructuring of the Massachusetts public education system. Among the Act's provisions were increased state funding for public schools, stricter teacher certification standards, mandated curriculum frameworks, and a requirement that students show competency in the curriculum frameworks before receiving their diplomas.