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Deval L. Patrick

The next chapter on education reform

By Deval L. Patrick
September 17, 2009

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EXCELLENCE in education is a proud tradition in Massachusetts. Thanks to innovative ideas, creative problem-solving, and our ability to focus on the needs of future generations regardless of today’s circumstances, we have earned a national and international reputation as a home to quality education. But we must not take our progress for granted. With today’s legislative hearing on proposals to replicate successful charter schools and turn around underperforming schools, we take one step closer to keeping Massachusetts fertile ground for the great minds that shape the course of human history.

Our foundation is strong. Academically, Massachusetts students rank first on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and in the top six worldwide in science and mathematics on the recent Trends in Mathematics and Science Survey. Tenth-graders made across-the-board improvements on the MCAS last academic year, and 84 percent of students have already met the state’s minimum testing requirements needed to earn a high school diploma on their first try. The most diverse group of Massachusetts’s graduating seniors has taken a significant step in pursuing a college education by taking the SAT. Of the Commonwealth’s 2009 college-bound seniors who took the SAT, 23.3 percent were minority students, an increase of 7 percentage points from 2004.

Administratively, even in the midst of this unprecedented economic crisis, we have maintained our commitment to Chapter 70 funding for local school districts. We continue to improve on the access to and quality of Universal Pre-Kindergarten programs. And we have secured college financial aid for more students and families so they can drive our innovation economy forward. Clearly, we have a lot to be proud of.

Nevertheless, we have an opportunity to finally and permanently face up to the stark reality that we continue to leave too many children behind. Those same National Assessment of Educational Progress scores that give us national bragging rights show achievement gaps between white and both African-American and Latino students, and between lower - and higher-income students in reading and mathematics. We should build on our tradition of innovation, reform, and progress and seize this chance to act.

The bills we filed in July and being considered by the Legislature today will usher in the next chapter of education reform in our Commonwealth by helping the lowest-performing districts catch up to their peers and ensuring healthy districts have the modern tools and ideas at their disposal to continue to improve.

First, in our lowest-performing districts, we propose to double the spending cap on charter schools. Only charter school operators with successful track records will be allowed to open or expand charter schools in these districts, and they must make meaningful efforts to attract, enroll, and retain low-income students, students scoring sub-proficient on the MCAS, English Language Learners, special-education students, students who have dropped out or are at risk of dropping out, and other students who are on the short end of our achievement gaps.

Second, our Readiness Schools bill offers new tools, rules, and support to help low-performing schools turn around quickly and effectively. Readiness Schools will promote innovative in-district schools for all Massachusetts students and families so that every school has the same chance at excellence. They will be a model for greater autonomy and flexibility in curriculum, budget, school schedule and calendar, staffing, and district policies. Sixteen school districts have already queued up to develop 22 Readiness Schools, proof that there is a significant appetite for increased autonomy and innovation in cities and towns around the state.

During these economic times, we need these bills to compete strongly for Race to the Top funding, the $4 billion federal education reform program that will help us maintain our commitment to today’s students. These responsible, forward-looking bills lay the foundation for future prosperity for our students, our economic health, and our communities all across the Commonwealth. There is already and will continue to be a healthy discussion of these proposals with teachers, business leaders, superintendents, school committees, parents, and others.

But let’s be clear: We are talking about what is best for our children. Morally and pragmatically, emotionally and logically, we know that it is a sin to cheat an innocent child of an opportunity simply because we were too timid to act. Now is the time to deliver and let the promise of tomorrow’s leaders flourish.

Deval L. Patrick is governor of Massachusetts.

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