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Democrat joins GOP against ed change

By Glen Johnson
AP Political Writer / July 20, 2010

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BOSTON—Two leaders of the landmark 1993 Massachusetts education overhaul, backed by a chorus of Republican critics, said Tuesday that proposal set to be voted upon to replace the state's math and English public school curriculum with a national standard was "high risk" and "a retrograde step."

Democrat Thomas Birmingham, who drafted the bill, and Republican William F. Weld, who signed it into law, told The Associated Press that changing curriculum standards was unwarranted because Massachusetts students have repeatedly scored at the top of national assessment tests in the intervening 17 years.

"There are a lot of things that don't work in state government; education reform is not one of them," said Birmingham, a Rhodes scholar who went on to serve as Senate president and now is a Boston attorney. He said by changing the curriculum, "there is high risk and very, very little reward."

Weld, now a lawyer in New York, labeled the proposed change "a retrograde step" and a precursor to eliminating the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests, also known as the MCAS.

Adopting MCAS tests in math, English and science, and making them a requirement for graduation, has been credited with the state's repeated top finishes in the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests.

"It would be madness to eliminate the MCAS test," said Weld. "A lot of blood was spilled, partly during my regime and moreso when (Paul) Cellucci was governor, to preserve the MCAS."

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, with at least two of its 12 members expected to be absent, was slated to vote on a proposal to adopt the national Common Core Standards at its meeting Wednesday.

Pushed by the Obama administration and developed by a state consortium, the standards would specify what is taught in math and English classes at each grade level. The aim to replace a hodgepodge of educational goals varying wildly from state to state with a uniform set of expectations for students.

Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester, who recommended the board support Common Core, said there is no proposal to eliminate the MCAS test, although it may ultimately be modified.

In a round-table discussion with reporters Tuesday, he also said the proposed national standards are, on balance, more rigorous than the state guidelines.

"By adopting Common Core, we are not diluting and we are not taking a step backward," Chester said.

The move was endorsed by former Boston School Superintendent Thomas Payzant, who said the Common Core will "build on the rigorous Massachusetts curriculum frameworks." Payzant once served under Democratic President Bill Clinton.

Yet Birmingham said the Common Core standards "will be set somewhere in the middle" of the 40 states that have expressed an interest in adopting them.

And both his and Weld's criticisms were echoed by Republican gubernatorial candidate Charles Baker, who served as Weld's human services and, later, finance secretary.

Leading his party's attack on the proposed change, Baker said the switch was being rushed without proper scrutiny during the midsummer vacation season.

And he charged that Gov. Deval Patrick was doing so to appease his fellow Democrats in the Obama administration, and reward the Massachusetts Teachers Association -- which opposes the MCAS -- for endorsing him.

The association issued its endorsement Monday; Chester endorsed the policy change on Friday.

"For the past 17 years, slow, steady, significant progress has been made in Massachusetts on improving the quality of education for the kids here, to the point where we are now the market leader," Baker said during a news conference on the steps of the Statehouse.

"Moving away from this standard, hitching our wagon to some to-be-developed-and-vetted-later-on national process for standards and testing is not fair to our students, and is not fair to our state," Baker said.

Independent gubernatorial candidate Timothy Cahill also urged the board not to approve the change. And he suggested the MCAS not be replaced but expanded to include history.

"Washington should not decide our standards for us -- we should determine our own," Cahill wrote in a letter to the board.

The Republicans attacked on other fronts, as well.

Sen. Richard Tisei, Baker's running mate and a candidate for lieutenant governor, called on Attorney General Martha Coakley to investigate any link between the endorsement and policy change.

Coakley, a Democrat, refused, and the teachers association labeled the charge "absurd."

Patrick spokesman Alex Goldstein also said the accusation was "baseless," adding: "Obviously, Tisei wants to deflect attention away from his running mate Charlie Baker's budget proposals, which would devastate education funding and move education in the commonwealth backwards."

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Associated Press Writer Steve LeBlanc contributed to this report.

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