Patrick trumpets education legislation

Governor signs bill designed to close achievement gaps

By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / January 19, 2010

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Sitting on a child’s stool at the Children’s Museum, Governor Deval Patrick signed a sweeping education bill yesterday that will greatly increase the number of charter schools, grant superintendents the power to overhaul failing districts, and make the state eligible for up to $250 million in federal stimulus money.

“We are standing up for children,’’ Patrick said before an upbeat gathering of educators, politicians, pupils, and parents. “We are showing those hungry minds in our classrooms that we believe in them.’’

The governor trumpeted the bill as a once-in-a-generation achievement designed to narrow the performance gaps that still plague many pupils from poorer households, despite the state’s stellar showing on standardized tests. “We can tolerate it no longer,’’ Patrick said.

The legislation, which required compromise with a passionate array of entrenched interest groups, should serve as a template for debate on other major issues, the governor said. Now, he added, the responsibility for reform shifts from Beacon Hill to the communities and classrooms where the day-to-day business of teaching occurs.

“For the sake of the children, commit to get it right,’’ said Patrick, who has called education reform one of the cornerstones of his political agenda.

The law will ease the way for superintendents to dismiss inadequate teachers and alter tough-to-change workplace rules such as the length of the school day. It will also double the number of charter schools in the state’s lowest-performing school districts.

In another incentive for change, half of any funds that Massachusetts receives from the national Race to the Top competition would be funneled to districts that agree to remake their troubled schools. The competition, launched by the Obama administration, will distribute more than $4 billion to states that are aggressively pursuing improvements at failing schools and expanding the number of charter schools.

State Education Secretary Paul Reville, who helped guide the bill through the Legislature, said Massachusetts has bolstered its chances to fulfill the promise of the landmark Education Reform Act of 1993. “We now have a great shot at finishing that work,’’ Reville said. “After today, we must turn immediately to implementation.’’

Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston called the legislation, signed on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, one of the highlights of his long political career. “What a wonderful day in the neighborhood,’’ said Menino, who called the act “one of the most innovative pieces of educational legislation in the country.’’ Under the package, Boston will be allowed to open at least four additional in-district charter schools without union approval.

Charter schools, which generally operate independently of local school districts, have been championed as laboratories of innovations, although teacher unions and other critics say they drain money away from traditional schools.

While the law passed with broad support in the House and Senate, the expedited process was criticized by some legislators who lamented that the lure of federal dollars had been the catalyst.

Still, with the rumble of children’s feet running on the museum floor above them, key legislators involved in the bill’s delivery called the end result a significant accomplishment.

“It was a complicated bill. It was a difficult bill, more so than most,’’ said Senator Robert O’Leary, a Barnstable Democrat who is cochairman of the Joint Committee on Education. “This is not the end of education reform. There is no end to education reform.’’

O’Leary’s counterpart from the House, Representative Marty Walz of Boston, echoed the need for sustained momentum. “For every superintendent and every teacher and every educator in this room, it’s up to you now,’’ she said.

Lawmakers barely met the federal deadline for state officials to apply for a share of the federal education stimulus money. That application, due today, is to be hand-delivered by Mitchell Chester, state commissioner of elementary and secondary education. Another copy was to be shipped to Washington by overnight mail.

“I’m on a 6 a.m. flight,’’ Chester said with a smile. “We’re leaving no stone unturned.’’