Original URL: http://www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/281/metro/Spending_MCAS_among_education_challenges_for_next_governor+.shtml

THE AGENDA

Spending, MCAS among education challenges for next governor

By Scott S. Greenberger, Globe Staff, 10/8/2002

Second in a series of articles on issues facing the next governor.A decade after the Commonwealth began its quest to
close the gap between stellar suburban schools and failing city ones, taxpayers have spent billions of dollars on education reform. And barring a last-minute policy change, the state for the first time will deny diplomas next spring to thousands of students who haven't passed the MCAS exam, which is supposed to measure the success of school reform.

But nobody pretends that the gap between suburban and urban schools has been closed, and at a time of drastically
shrinking budgets, the next governor will have to decide what else Massachusetts can do to pull up low-performing
schools.

''There is this critical coming phase, which certainly has to do with MCAS hitting, but has more to do with this fundamental question: What do you do with school districts that have been given substantially more resources under
education reform and have shown very little improvement?'' said Mark Roosevelt, a former state representative and an
architect of the 1993 education reform law.

Many educators say the answer is for the Commonwealth to raise teacher salaries and beef up training to attract and
keep the most talented professionals. Some superintendents want mandatory preschool and a longer school day. An
increasing number of parents, having lost faith in traditional public schools, are pinning their hopes on charter schools.
Others, buoyed by a recent US Supreme Court ruling, are pushing for school vouchers. And backers of a November ballot initiative say that scrapping the Commonwealth's 30-year-old bilingual education law will immediately boost the
performance of immigrant children.

The next governor can't unilaterally enact education plans: The Legislature has a say, of course, and all the members of
the governor-appointed Board of Education have at least two years left in their terms. But the governor does have the
state's most prominent bully pulpit and the ear of the public at a pivotal time in education.

''Only the governor is really free to speak out,'' said Abigail Thernstrom, a member of the Board of Education. ''There is a
freedom that comes with the position that should be used.''

The next governor might even tinker with the MCAS graduation requirement itself; the leading candidates are MCAS
supporters, but the winner could postpone the requirement, lower the passing score, or spare students from the graduation requirement until teachers and principals are held accountable.

A federal lawsuit filed earlier this month might allow the next governor to dodge the MCAS bullet. The class-action suit
alleges that the state has failed to prepare many students for the test and that it discriminates against minorities, the
disabled, and non-English speakers. The lawyers for the plaintiffs want the judge to strike down the graduation requirement and to mandate better teacher training.

The lawsuit (or a gubernatorial reprieve) might save Terry Gonzalez, a senior at West Roxbury High School who wants to
become a funeral director. Gonzalez, a diligent student who is captain of the West Roxbury football team, is still 2 points
shy of passing the math portion of the MCAS exam. If he doesn't pass a retest in December, he won't receive a diploma
in June, and his career plans will be in jeopardy.

''If you do all your schoolwork and pass your classes, why do you have to pass this test to get your high school
diploma?'' he said. ''I'm all about school. ... I want to be somebody.''

But for MCAS supporters, the fact that a student like Gonzalez practices math every afternoon before football practice is
evidence that the MCAS exam is having the desired effect.

''The test is designed to drive districts to provide those [educational] opportunities and you can show pretty clearly that
almost without exception that has been the case,'' said Board of Education chairman James A. Peyser.

Peyser hopes the next governor will hold the line on the graduation requirement. So does Worcester Superintendent
James Caradonio.

''Why give them a way out?'' Caradonio said. ''Eighty-one percent have passed it - what do you say to those kids?''

Even some MCAS supporters say that failing thousands of students - most of them minority, special education, and
bilingual students - will be a nightmare for the next governor.

''What are you going to do with these kids?'' asked state Senator Robert Antonioni, a Leominster Democrat who cochairs
the education committee. ''Can you maintain the graduation requirement with failure rates in certain categories of
students that are really beyond what many would consider palatable?''

The Board of Education may allow ''alternative certificates'' for students who complete all non-MCAS graduation
requirements, allowing them to attend community colleges or qualify for jobs. Antonioni says there has also been ''quiet
talk,'' which the next governor may have to face, about delaying the math requirement. Eighty-eight percent of high-school
seniors have passed MCAS English while 83 percent have passed math.

The state has pledged to help failing students prepare for the exam for as long as they want to keep taking it - even after
their classmates graduate - but the next governor will have to decide how much the state can afford to pay for that help.
Over the past three years, the Legislature has spent $130 million on MCAS tutoring, but tight budgets will make it difficult
to keep those dollars flowing.

While MCAS may dominate the education agenda of the next governor, he or she will face these other issues as well:

Attracting and keeping teaching talent. Catherine Boudreau, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association,
says the next governor should concentrate on attracting and keeping high-quality instructors. One way would be to raise
starting salaries so the Commonwealth can compete with higher-spending neighbors such as Connecticut for the best
young talent. But she and others also called for help in training and retaining the best teachers.

It may be easy for the next governor to support attracting and retaining better teachers, but the key will be deciding how
much to spend.

''You have to invest in not only getting the people in, not just salaries, but in retaining them by giving them training and
good working conditions that will make them really grow and develop and stick with the profession,'' said Boston Public
Schools Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant.

Charter schools. As the number of Massachusetts charter schools grows, the next governor will have to decide whether
to give them more support. There are currently 46 charter schools in the Commonwealth - up from 15 in 1995 - with more than 17,000 students enrolled and 13,000 on waiting lists. Free from many of the rules governing regular public schools, charter schools get taxpayer money for operating costs, but very little funding for capital costs, such as buildings.

Charter-school advocates will continue to press the state for assistance with those capital costs. On the other side,
school districts will push the next governor to restore the program that compensated them for losing students to charter
schools - a casualty of Acting Governor Jane Swift's veto pen.

School vouchers. Now that the US Supreme Court has ruled that school vouchers are constitutional, supporters hope
the next governor will push to overturn the state constitution's ''anti-aid'' provision, which prohibits public aid to private
schools.

Bilingual education. Finally, if the November ballot initiative scrapping bilingual education passes, the next governor will
have to decide how vigorously to enforce the new law, which would call for a single year of English ''immersion'' before full integration into regular classrooms.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 10/8/2002.
Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

 

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