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Education Reform in Massachusetts

"Having no other mines to work, Massachusetts has mined into the human intellect; and from its limitless resources, she has won more sustaining and endearing prosperity and happiness than if she had been founded on a stratification of silver and gold, reaching deeper down than geology has yet penetrated."

- Horace Mann, "The Ground of the Free School System" in Old South Leaflets, v. 5. Boston: The Directors of the Old South [Meeting House] Work, 1902, p. 20

Public education in Massachusetts began when Horace Mann left his post as Senate president and became Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education in 1837. Mann did many things, but his main legacy was to convince people that public education was a public good that should be publicly funded. As a result, Massachusetts had the first system of public schools in the country.

Mann framed his argument for government support of public education two ways. First he argued that the economy needed educated workers. At a time when the Industrial Revolution was looming over the horizon, this was persuasive to the self-interest of industrialists. Mann also argued that public education was the great balance wheel of society, that schooling for all could help everyone reach his or her potential. It is interesting that, over 150 years after Mann's tenure, those two arguments about why we need good schools - improving the economy and increasing basic equity - are still current.

Over the years, citizens and leaders have worked to improve the public schools. Since 1888 there have been over one hundred studies that examined various aspects of public education in the Commonwealth. Many of these were relatively minor efforts that took a look at specific aspects of education - teacher training, textbooks, immigrant education. About a dozen were more comprehensive and looked at education more broadly.

The 1918-19 special commission on education was typical in finding that the two major problems confronting the schools were the need "for a more liberal policy on the part of the State in the support of education," and the sharp disparity in school spending in different districts. In the mid-1960s, the Willis-Harrington Commission, perhaps the most successful and best supported reform effort in the state's history, echoed these concerns and criticized both inadequate state funding and the fact that "accidents of birth" determined where and how well an individual was educated. The mid-1980s education committee study and the 1990s effort that led to the current reform came to many of the same conclusions as their predecessors and called for increased state contributions for a variety of school programs, as well as special funding to cut the spending gap between rich and poor communities. (For more on education reform history, see Robert Gaudet, "The Willis Harrington Commission: The Politics of Education Reform," New England Journal of Public Policy, Summer/Fall 1987).

Between 1962 and 1965, the Massachusetts Education Study, better known as the Willis-Harrington Commission, undertook the most comprehensive examination of public education in Massachusetts history. The Commission took 30 months and spent almost $300,000 to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the state's school systems. The study resulted in a 624-page final report that included over 100 programmatic recommendations. Proceeds from a new sales tax were to be dedicated to education reform.

When the dust had settled on all of these endeavors, little had changed concerning the Commonwealth's schools. Even the heady promise of Willis-Harrington eventually yielded to the intractability of the vested interests. By April of 1967, barely two years after enactment of its major change of shifting educational governance - replacing the "good old boy" clique that comprised the old single board of education with a new improved model that split governance between college and pre-collegiate education - all was not well. Not long after the hurrahs had echoed away, the Boston Globe noted that "The education reform in Massachusetts is a joke," (Boston Globe, 4/30/67, p. 1). The new board and governance system simply had not triggered the kind of real change that the reformers had sought. Twenty-five years later, many observers have been similarly frustrated by the difficulty of bringing substantive improvement to public education. Willis-Harrington changed the process of educational governance, but that was not sufficient to change the results of education.

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