TWENTY-FIVE YEARS — and billions of taxpayers dollars — after the passage of a landmark education reform act, Massachusetts public schools have made enormous progress. But not all have shared equally in that progress.
It’s now time for Ed Reform II. The state needs a plan that provides not just additional money — in fact, education spending has increased by more than $500 million during the last four years alone — but targets it in a way that will help those students who have been left behind.
Last week a new coalition of advocacy groups, the Massachusetts Education Equity Partnership pointed out some rather inconvenient facts about the achievement gap that persists for black, Latino, low income, and English-learner students compared to their white counterparts.
The numbers in their report “Number One for Some: Opportunity & Achievement in Massachusetts” aren’t new. They have been drawn from a variety of recent studies. But they remain shocking.
Fewer than one in three black and Latino fourth graders read at grade level, a rate half that of white students.
Only 28 percent of low income eighth graders perform at grade level in math, half the rate of higher income students.
One in three English-language learners do not graduate on time and one in seven drop out of school entirely.
On Thursday, as if to highlight the point, state MCAS scores showed that while many suburban schools continue to excel, 230 public schools in Boston and Gateway Cities missed the mark and, therefore, need more attention and financial support.
All this while, yes, Massachusetts ranks first in the nation on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
“I’m tired of people congratulating each other on being number one, when our black and brown children are being left behind,” said Keri Rodrigues, head of Massachusetts Parents United, a member of the new partnership.
The mother of three public school students also put her finger on one of the serious stumbling blocks to the next generation of education reform.
“The idea that we are going to hand over a blank check to school departments is just irresponsible,” she said. “I want some receipts for what we’re getting for this money. I want to see the plan. I want to see the best practices and then have the plan funded.”
That’s pretty much where state lawmakers came up short at the end of July as they tried but failed to make changes in the formula by which most state education money is distributed to cities and towns. The idea was to get more money to districts that serve those clearly under-served students, particularly the state’s Gateway Cities like Chelsea, Holyoke, Lawrence, Brockton — and to do it without breaking the bank.
Recent emails acquired under a public records request by The Republican/MassLive.com from Education Department budget crunchers to legislators negotiating a new bill put the annual new state dollars needed at anywhere from $212 million to $915 million — depending on the range of options lawmakers choose.
Now keep in mind this isn’t “free money.” The additional state dollars would obligate cities and towns to come up with as much as $1.03 billion in new local contributions.
There also remains the usual conflict between those that spend lavishly on their school systems — often without the desired results (Boston’s per pupil costs are $20,247; Cambridge is $28,077) — compared to those on the low end (Brockton at $14,953). And then there’s Revere ($14,534) often cited as a place community with an incredibly diverse population that gets among the best results at the least cost.
So how to use new state dollars to get more Reveres?
“How about making sure those black and brown students get the most experienced, most talented teachers in the system,” Rodrigues said. “Teachers make a difference.”
Many lawmakers agree that flexibility in assigning teachers and easing seniority rules is key. So too looking at interventions that work, especially for English-language learners. Some suggest a competitive application process that would encourage innovation and the spread of best practices — all, of course, in addition to those entirely contentious changes in the foundation budget to recognize communities where the need is greatest.
Let’s not forget, it took a Supreme Judicial Court ruling back in 1993 to spur the first round of education reform — and with it, for the first time not just enormous amounts of state dollars but MCAS tests, including as a graduation requirement, performance ratings for schools and public funding for charter schools.
The next generation of education reform must promise no less — real change on the ground and in the classroom — changes parents are demanding and taxpayers will be willing to fund.