Massachusetts school reform: If it ain't broke...

By almost every relevant measure, Massachusetts has the highest-performing public education system in the land, with praiseworthy NAEP results (at least compared to everywhere else), solid academic standards, an effective testing and accountability system, a well-regarded (if puny) charter-school sector, intelligent approaches to teacher licensure, and more. This is fundamentally the legacy of fifteen years of sensible, steadfast (and generously funded) reform efforts that have, for the most part, enjoyed the support of GOP governors (Weld, Romney and more) and Democratic legislators but that have been spearheaded and sustained, above all, by the Commonwealth's bumptious and proudly independent state board of education and former commissioner (now a Fordham board member) David Driscoll.

Why is Governor Deval Patrick bent on ramming through the legislature an organizational and policy upheaval that bids fair to undermine if not actually undo these achievements, while overturning a set-up that dates to Horace Mann's time?

On the surface, the Gov seeks only structural changes, including creation of a powerful education "czar" reporting to him who would sit atop the existing units of education governance, and related changes meant to make those units less autonomous and more subject to gubernatorial direction.

There are, to be sure, some states where Gadfly might hail such changes as what's needed to enable a crusading, change-minded governor to break the grip of the status quo. But Massachusetts is a reform success story, and one doesn't have to be a completely paranoid reader-between-the-lines to see that Governor Patrick is actually bent on undoing or weakening some of those reforms. He signaled as much during his gubernatorial campaign (see here), making known his misgivings about the MCAS accountability system (even as the state board has taken steps to strengthen it) and has made no secret of his unease with the state's charter-school program. He shows many signs of conventional "progressivist" education thinking; of friendship with traditional public-education interest groups (known for their lack of zeal for many of the reforms of recent years); and of unease with the feistier members of the State Board of Education, including several last-minute appointees of Mitt Romney.

So now he's making his move--with exquisitely bad timing, by the way, the State Board having just selected Ohio's Mitch Chester, a champion of standards-based reform (and at least a mild supporter of charters) to succeed Driscoll in the commissioner's seat.

Welcome to the Bay State, Dr. Chester. The Governor is eager to tie your hands and those of the board that hired you.

Massachusetts lawmakers would be idiots to let this happen.

"Massachusetts should preserve independent Board of Education," by Charles Chieppo, Worcester Telegram, January 28, 2008

"Ohio school official picked as new state education commissioner," by Tracy Jan, Boston Globe, January 17, 2008

"Mass testing," by Guy Darst, Wall Street Journal, September 22, 2007

Pioneer Institute testimony about proposed reorganization of the Board of Education

More By Author