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School Wars Are Over in Massachusetts. Everybody Won.

Andrea Gabor

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Late last year, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed a school-funding bill that is almost as historic as the 1993 law that made the state the gold standard for public education for at least a decade. The rest of the country should pay attention.

The law will add $1.5 billion in state financing of K-12 education over seven years, most of it for poor districts and for children with the greatest needs.

The funding bill renews the promise of the 1993 Massachusetts reforms, the product of years of negotiations among  teachers unions, parents’ organizations, politicians and business groups. It also signals a rejection of top-down reforms under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama that  sought to impose uniform teacher-evaluation systems and the expansion of charter schools, policies that were seen as undermining local K-12 decision making.

The 1993 measure traded $1 billion in extra K-12 funding for new testing requirements and a widely praised statewide core curriculum. The result was top scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation’s report card. By 2000, the gap between NAEP scores of black and white students had actually narrowed.

The Massachusetts reforms showed particular promise in poor cities like Brockton, where schools suffered following the collapse of the city’s industrial base throughout the 1980s and the resulting exodus of working- and middle-class families and an influx of non-English-speaking immigrants. With sharp cuts in education funding, Brockton High went from thriving to being known as the worst high school in Massachusetts.

The 1993 law had sparked a teacher-led literacy strategy that suffused every subject at Brockton High. For over a decade, the school outperformed most others in the state, surpassing the average on attendance, four-year graduation rates and college matriculation.

But by 2002, tax cuts and economic downturns had eroded school financing and widened funding disparities between poor and affluent districts, according to a 2018 report from the Massachusetts State Senate. Following the 2008 recession, Massachusetts succumbed to Obama-era demands to adopt a dizzying array of unpopular reforms, including new standardized tests and teacher evaluation systems, in exchange for a one-time $250 million grant.

The 2019 law, which passed both houses of the Democrat-controlled state legislature unanimously and was signed by a Republican governor, doesn’t just increase school aid; it fixes the school-funding formula that saw poor districts like Brockton spending just $14,491 per pupil in 2018, while affluent towns like Weston spent $25,367 per pupil. It also makes it easier to count undocumented-immigrant children who were often excluded under the old funding formula. At Brockton High, for example, the new formula will help pay to educate 300 to 400 undocumented children — out of a total student population of 4,456 — who received no state funding under the previous formula, according to Aldo Petronio, Brockton’s executive director of finance.

The law also gives local districts more  flexibility to design programs, specifying that the “evidence-based” strategies districts use can include everything from expanded learning time to services intended to “support students’ social-emotional and physical health.”

Finally, the law includes a competitive grant program that allows districts to apply for a waiver from state regulations. From New York to Texas, some of the most successful and longest-lasting reforms are the result of waivers that have given districts the flexibility to experiment — something more states should explore.

Districts will have to submit a three-year plan for how they intend to spend their extra funds. However, a proposal backed by Baker that would have allowed the state to impose penalties on poor districts that do not show sufficient improvement, including withholding funding, did not pass the legislature.

Indeed, while the testing requirements remain, the new law signals a backlash against additional carrot-and-stick measures that are seen as coming at the expense of the poorest children and districts. It gained momentum following the lopsided defeat of a 2016 Massachusetts ballot measure funded largely by out-of-state groups that sought to eliminate a cap on charter schools, which have drained public-school funding in communities like Brockton. “That changed the political landscape,” said Jennifer Berkshire, who has been researching the political fallout nationwide from school-privatization efforts and is coauthor of an upcoming book, “Wolf at the School House Door.”

For poor districts like Brockton, the new law is likely to be a game changer. Although the budgeting process is unlikely to be completed before June, additional funding could total close to 10 percent of the district’s per-student budget. The district is hoping to hire more teachers and instructional coaches and to buy new curricular materials and technology — areas that have seen cuts in recent years. And in a district that has only been able to fund two pre-K classes for 40 students, the new funding could mean expanded pre-K, says June Saba-Maguire, Brockton’s chief academic officer.

After two decades of reforms that focused on expanding standardized tests and charter schools with disappointing results — scores mostly declined on the latest NAEP test — a few states, including Michigan and Rhode Island, are looking to Massachusetts as a model. Unfortunately, they are trying to achieve improvement via tests and state intervention in underperforming districts without the extra funding that made Massachusetts successful.

Ultimately, it is voters who will have to press legislators to spend more on schools and to distribute the money to communities with the fewest resources. Just months before passage of the Massachusetts law, 58 percent of the state’s voters said they were willing to pay higher taxes to reduce education disparities and a majority said they would give up some funding in their own districts if it meant more money for the most disadvantaged communities.

To contact the author of this story: Andrea Gabor at Andrea.Gabor@baruch.cuny.edu

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andrea Gabor, a former editor at Business Week and U.S. News & World Report, is the Bloomberg chair of business journalism at Baruch College of the City University of New York and the author of "After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform."

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