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The Education Reform Act of 1993

Across the land there is a growing agreement that insisting on results-oriented reform tied to achievement standards is the first step in developing schools that work for the twenty-first century. Marc Tucker, formerly of the Carnegie Foundation and currently affiliated with the National Center on Education and the Economy, has called for the definition of national education goals with assessment processes appropriate to local and state needs. His vision of clear goals is shared by the National Governors Association, former President Bush, President Clinton, and the vast majority of states (Teacher Magazine, April 1991, p. 52). Reform activities in Massachusetts during the 1990s mirrored the national agenda.

The Massachusetts legislature once again began grappling with school reform in early 1991 when the newly-appointed chairman of the Education Committee, Mark Roosevelt of Boston, took up the cause of school improvement as had the previous chairman, Nicholas Paleologos of Woburn, in 1985, and as had his predecessor, James Collins of Amherst, in 1984. On the Senate side, Education Committee Chairman Tom Birmingham pushed reform.

Some insiders felt that this time it would be relatively easy to pass needed changes. The business community, which had been largely unengaged in previous efforts, was involved from the beginning. John Rennie, CEO of Pacer Systems, Inc., a successful high technology company located north of Boston, formed an education advocacy group, The Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education (MBAE). Many of the state's top companies joined in the effort to improve the schools. (For more information, see John Rennie, "A Thoughtful Approach to Education Reform," New England Journal of Public Policy (Summer/Fall 1987).

After almost two years of work, the MBAE bill did become law. The major feature of the law was that improved student achievement was the goal. Previous reforms had focused on changing processes, not on improving outcomes. Another element of the legislation was to give more state aid for local education costs. Over 7 years, billions of dollars in new aid were to be distributed to local systems. Along with this new money came an obligation for local governments to maintain funding at a certain level. In other words, a municipality could not cut its contribution to school spending because the state is giving more. This all is intended to set a level of "foundation funding" - the amount it takes to provide adequate educational services that each district must spend. The idea is to help equalize spending between a town like Dalton which spent around $4,000 per pupil and a town like Weston which is over $8,000.

Other aspects of the reform law included: technically eliminating tenure for teachers and removing principals from teacher bargaining units thus making them more independent; reducing the power of school committees on day-to-day management issues and giving more power to superintendents; ordering the creation of school site councils (for school based management and decision-making) for each school in the Commonwealth; authorizing charter schools that operate independently of local school district and union rules; making it possible to remove disruptive students from classrooms by expulsion; and developing curriculum guidelines about what students should know that eventually would be translated into graduation standards. Progress would be assessed annually via standardized MCAS tests (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) tests.

After seven years of increased funding and three years of statewide MCAS assessments, it is not clear how much student achievement has improved. Time will tell whether the Education Reform Act of 1993 succeeds in improving the education of Massachusetts students.

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