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Lawmakers approve education bill

Will help state’s bid for US funds, Patrick says

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / January 15, 2010

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Governor Deval Patrick predicted last night that the Legislature’s approval of a sweeping education bill would bring to an end a chronic achievement gap between students of different socioeconomic backgrounds and would probably enhance the state’s chances of receiving $250 million in new federal stimulus money.

“This is the biggest step forward we’ve made in nearly two decades in public schools,’’ said Patrick, applauding House and Senate leadership for getting the bill approved. “I’m incredibly excited for our schoolchildren.’’

The bill calls for doubling the number of charter schools in the state’s lowest-performing districts and granting extraordinary powers to superintendents to overhaul their worst schools. Superintendents should find it easier to dismiss teachers and make changes to workplace rules, such as the length of school days.

The Senate approved the bill, 23 to 12, late yesterday afternoon while the House followed roughly two hours later, passing it 97 to 47.

The passage of the measure is particularly significant for charter school expansion, which the Legislature has been debating for years. Organizers of a ballot question that would seek unfettered charter school growth indicated yesterday they intend to suspend the effort if the bill is enacted into law.

While approval margins were wide, building support among lawmakers initially proved difficult, pitting those who favor teachers unions against those who loathe them, and charter school supporters against opponents.

The legislation, targeted by lobbyists representing divergent education agendas, was the subject of four Democratic caucuses in the House, an unusually high number for a single bill, House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said last night.

“People felt so passionately about this subject, which was great,’’ said DeLeo, who was grateful that a compromise was found. “The thing I kept trying to relate to members was what is the right thing for the children.’’

Before the bill could be considered yesterday, Senate rules had to be waived because a conference committee, which put together the bill Wednesday night, missed the filing deadline.

Over the course of more than an hour, some senators voiced concern that the bill was being rushed through, but many others said they believed the opportunity to secure additional money during a period of steep budget cuts was too good to pass up.

While Massachusetts students as a whole often lead the nation in their scores on standardized tests, the results, when broken down along socioeconomic lines, vary drastically, possibly revealing uneven progress under the state’s 1993 Education Reform Act.

For instance, on the MCAS tests, Asian and white students often score much higher than black and Latino students. Low-income students, special education students, and students not fluent in English tend to lag, as well. Such gaps also show up on other measures, such as high school graduation rates.

Later in the House, a handful of members spoke out for and against the bill.

Senator Robert O’Leary, a Cape Cod Democrat who co-chairs the Joint Committee on Education, sat in the House gallery as that chamber’s lawmakers cast their votes, sending the legislation to the governor’s desk for signing, a moment he considered of historic significance.

“It’s been a long journey,’’ O’Leary said. “In the underperforming districts, largely urban districts, we need to do something drastically different. Incremental change is not enough.’’

The bill represents a cornerstone of Patrick’s education agenda, which slightly more than a year ago appeared to be all but on hold as the state confronted ever-worsening budget woes.

But the effort was reignited last year at the prospect of receiving $250 million from President Obama’s Race to the Top competition, reserved for states aggressively pursuing overhauls of failing schools and expansions of charter schools.

Now state education officials are racing to meet a Tuesday deadline to submit their funding proposal, including a copy of the approved bill. They will send the hundreds of pages by express carrier, while a state official who will be in Washington Tuesday has agreed to drop off a backup copy.

State Senator Richard Tisei, Republican minority leader who is running for lieutenant governor, told colleagues on the floor that he supported the bill but added: “It is sort of sad in a way that it has taken the dangling of new education dollars to make the Legislature do the right thing to address some of the underperforming school issues. . . . We’ve missed a lot of opportunities over that time to take the next step.’’

Half of the money the state receives would go directly to school districts committed to undertaking dramatic changes in fixing failing schools. By yesterday, about two-thirds of the state’s school districts, encompassing 85 percent of the state’s students living in poverty, filed agreements with the state to tackle the problem.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston applauded the passage last night in a statement. The bill will enable the city to open at least four in-district charter schools without union approval and another 10 statewide.