The Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993 (MERA) launched an ambitious plan to provide an adequate education for our children. The law ushered in an era of standards-based assessments (MCAS), an increase in charter public schools, and a new school-funding formula (Chapter 70). While progress has been made, we are still struggling to fulfill the promise of MERA:
- MCAS held that if school districts and educators were accountable for improving student outcomes, as measured against common criteria, then student academic outcomes would improve. The result has had the unintended consequence of a narrowed curriculum, too much time focused on standardized test preparation and testing, increased bureaucracy, large gaps in proficiency and rising dropout rates, and failure to measure achievement of individual learners. Going forward requires a rich and varied curriculum and nimble, flexible assessments for children.
- Charter schools are independent public schools operating under five year charters. The contract frees charter schools from many of the regulations with which district public schools must comply. Charter public schools were touted as “labs of innovation”; they were going to experiment with innovative practice then share what they learned with district public schools. This has not happened.
- MassBudget’s in-depth report on Chapter 70 adequacy (Cutting Class: Underfunding the Foundation Budget’s Core Education Program) shows that the education-funding formula (developed in 1991) understates rising costs of special education and health care by more than $2 billion a year. Too much funding today is being siphoned away from the people and things our students need: teachers and classroom materials. The genius of the original foundation budget was the commitment by so many to address education challenges facing Massachusetts. Maintaining the genius of the financing plan requires that it be updated to reflect curriculum standards and new practices in teaching, learning, and leading schools.
MERA made bold promises to and for the students of Massachusetts. Yet other promises remain unfulfilled. For too many students, lack of academic achievement continues and drop-out rates remain high. Improving our schools continues to be a vitally important strategy for promoting economic opportunity and achieving educational excellence and equity, but schools cannot do this work alone.
Partnering with families and communities is integral to children’s success in school – and in life. We need to support children’s learning everywhere they learn: at home, in preschool programs, in school, in before- and after-school opportunities, in recreation programs, and in faith-based and community sponsored opportunities.
Advocacy on this issue can take many forms and decision-makers at every level need to hear from an engaged constituency. Massachusetts PTA seeks to be not only a voice, but also a resource for increased family and community understanding of the education reform landscape.
Mary Ann Stewart (@MAStewartMA) is a Lexington School Committee member, Chair of MassPartners for Public Schools, and the immediate past president and current Chair of State & Federal Advocacy for Massachusetts PTA.