THE STATE’S stunning success in securing $250 million in federal Race to the Top funds for its public schools is an occasion for celebration. But it’s important to understand why it happened.
The education-reform bill that positioned Massachusetts to achieve the highest score of any state in the federal competition was the type of legislation that’s supposed to be impossible to achieve on Beacon Hill. It was opposed by powerful labor interests, because it gave the state the right to force changes to hidebound collective bargaining agreements in failing school systems.
It violated the tradition of local control of education, empowering the state to take on entrenched bureaucracies in struggling municipalities. And by creating thousands of new charter-school slots, it ended the near-monopoly of public schools in urban areas where students had run out of options.
It was a tough fight, indeed, and the many proponents — of whom Governor Patrick, Secretary of Education Paul Reville, and the two chairs of the legislative committees, state Representative Martha Walz and state Senator Robert O’Leary, were only the most visible — deserve credit. The Boston Foundation, headed by Paul Grogan, made passage of the bill its highest priority. The advocacy of the foundation, business leaders, and other private forces reflected Massachusetts’ collective determination to enhance its leadership role in public education.
With this new grant, it will. The money will create a statewide data system to focus attention on the kids who most need it. It will also train teachers to upgrade offerings in science and math. In some places, it will provide funds to attract top-notch teachers to the lowest-performing schools. The list of exciting new programs is long.
Teachers’ unions were the leading opponents of the education-reform legislation, fearing that it would make teachers responsible for all the ills of public education. While the law, along with some of the programs funded by the federal grant, will indeed hold teachers to higher standards, it also draws needed attention to the vital role played by those in the classroom. Some of the federal money will appropriately end up in teachers’ pockets. The very best educators will see their work honored and remunerated in new ways.
Improving the public schools will be an ongoing battle for decades; but the work of the past year has been a strong step forward.