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Dear Neighbor,

This year is the 25th anniversary of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993.   We are frequently told that until then, Massachusetts schools were "mediocre,"  "in the middle of the pack," but now we're number one.   All aspects of "education reform," in the view of some, need to be preserved and strengthened to continue progress.

We’ve come to accept as normal things like MCAS tests in every grade 3-8, turnaround schools, graduation tests, and questions about whether a school is L1 or 2 -- or in the dreaded “bottom 20%,” or even in danger of falling into a lower level.

But those policies were all adopted to meet federal requirements under No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top, which were major expansions of federal control. Across the country, growing resistance to top-down control from Washington has led to changes, which give us new opportunities.

In 2015, Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, which returns more responsibility to state and local policymakers.

We never had mediocre schools.  ESSA gives us the chance to examine our policies and see which we should keep and which we should change.

This newsletter and the one that follows are based on Rethinking School Accountability: the report of the Senate Sub-committee on Opportunities Under ESSA, which I chair.  I hope you'll download and look at it.  (There are lots of fun graphs.)

Since the days of Horace Mann, Massachusetts has been a national leader in K-12 education. There have been many waves of ed reform.  What elements of tradition AND reform have helped children learn and grow? What are the elements that haven’t?   We’ll look at the Mass. Education Reform Act (MERA) of 1993,  which was initiated here in Massachusetts, and at the Achievement Gap Act (AGA) of 2010, which responded to federal requirements.
After Proposition 2 1⁄2 passed in 1980, all districts had to cut their school budgets, especially in property-poor communities, which were already underfunded. Inequality increased, and became more visible. 
As a school committee member, I learned that Somerville had property taxes twice as high and school spending half as much as some nearby communities.  So I joined the Council for Fair School Finance, which filed a court suit.  As a result, in 1993, our Supreme Judicial Court declared that the state has a constitutional obligation to provide adequate education to all children. At the same time as that suit was being heard, the Mass. Business Alliance for Education was organized to push for a foundation budget and increased state authority. 

The result was the MERA. It’s been called the Grand Bargain: the 3 legs of the stool were:

1. adequate and equalized funding,
2. more state control, including including a high school graduation test and a “comprehensive assessment system” which has boiled down to MCAS
3. parent choice, both charter schools and inter-district choice

The 1993 reform promised to double local education aid. That promise was kept for 7 years.   Chapter 70 aid was more than doubled, increasing by over a billion dollars. The new state aid was distributed in a mostly equalizing way so that by 2002 all districts were at least at foundation level.  For more on the Foundation Budget, see a previous newsletter.
Graph by MassBudget
Massachusetts was near the top of the nation in scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) even before 1993.  But under the Grand Bargain, we did even better.   Scores on national tests went up, especially in low-income communities.
But the three legs of the of education reform stool are no longer equal. Testing, interventions and charter schools have expanded.  But since FY 2002, Chapter 70 has actually shrunk, when adjusted for inflation.

Dollar amount increases have mostly been distributed through per-pupil “minimum aid” and “effort reduction” aid rather than aid targeted to under-resourced schools.
The result has been renewed unequal funding of schools.  On the left of this chart are the districts with the highest percentage of low-income students; on the right are those with the lowest percentage.  The chart shows how much above their foundation budget each district can spend.
The 3 "chronically underperforming" level 5 districts (Holyoke, Lawrence, and Southbridge) have been taken over by the state.  They have among the highest percent of low income students. They are all spending right at their foundation level, which we know is outdated and inadequate; the average district spends 24% above foundation.

This chart shows the effect.  Low income districts spend far less on regular education teachers than they should, according to the foundation budget.  Only the wealthiest communities are able to spend as much for those teachers as we declared in MERA that they should.

Graph by MassBudget
In MERA's 3 legged stool, the funding leg has shrunk.  The choice leg has gotten longer as charter schools expand.  The testing and state control leg has grown.  The grand bargain is out of balance.

Ed Moscovitch was one of architects of MERA.  In 2010 he wrote,
“If we cannot bring resources in the classroom to the foundation goal...we cannot in good faith continue to hold teachers and  principals accountable for reaching the reform law’s performance goals.”

-- in Mass. Business Alliance for Education, “School Funding Reality: A Bargain Not Kept”
Next week: Ed Reform 2.  Accountability, the 2010 law, how it works and how we can do better.
Copyright © *Committee to Re-Elect Pat Jehlen, All rights reserved.

Our mailing address is:
CTE Pat Jehlen, 67 Dane St, Somerville MA 02143

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