Massachusetts Gubernatorial Candidates on K-12 Education Policy

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K-12 education policy too often is the province of powerful special interests. It is important for candidates for public office to speak directly to citizens and parents about what they will do for the next generation of schoolchildren if elected.

That’s why we invited all five Massachusetts gubernatorial candidates to respond to a questionnaire on K-12 education policy. Our purpose is to share their views on eight big education issues relevant to what children learn in the classroom, career and college preparation, and equitable choices for all families.

All of the gubernatorial candidates responded to our questionnaire, with the exception of Martha Coakley. As soon as we receive her responses, we will share them with you as well. A few quick highlights:

    • All of the participating candidates support lifting the cap on charter schools.
    • Three of the participating candidates expressed support for expanding access to vocational-technical schools.
    • Three of the participating candidates support reinstating the US History MCAS exam as a high school graduation requirement.
Question 1:  Massachusetts’ 1993 Education Reform Act dedicated substantial new money toward K-12 public education. In return, it also included a number of controversial reforms like MCAS, charter schools and teacher testing. Some issues, like extending the school day and expanding public pre-K offerings, are relatively non-controversial. As governor, what more politically difficult reforms would you push to ensure that every public school student in Massachusetts has access to educational opportunity?

We need to directly and urgently address the needs of students who are stuck in the Commonwealth’s lowest performing schools and districts.  The Patrick administration deserves credit for the progressive approach it has taken to comprehensive reform in Lawrence.  In particular, Commissioner Chester and Superintendent Riley have significantly reduced the size of the central bureaucracy, reallocated resources to schools and empowered principals to make decisions about staffing, budget and programs.  Equally important, they have reached out to private partners and charter operators to add capacity and directly manage schools. This strategy of creating a diverse and accountable system of autonomous schools (including charter schools), rather than a centrally managed school system is a model that is working in Lawrence and in a growing number of urban districts around the country.  As Governor, I would build on our experience in Lawrence to expand our capacity for similar state-local partnerships, or receiverships if necessary.

Separately, years of research has convincingly shown that there is little or no connection between dollars spent on education and academic outcomes.  Of course, we should constantly evaluate whether we are spending the right amount – either too much or too little – in every line item of the state budget, including Chapter 70.  But, far more important than how much is spent, is how well it’s spent.  I plan to commission independent fiscal reviews of the Commonwealth’s largest school districts to determine how they could restructure their central offices and administrative functions in order to reduce overhead, empower school-level leadership, and free-up resources for increased student learning opportunities, including early education and extended day programs.

No response.

Education funding has not kept pace with the increasing cost of educating students. In spite of Chapter 70’s requirement that the formula for the foundation budget be updated regularly, it has not been updated in a decade. The basics of funding education seem to be “politically difficult.” My top education priority is to immediately revise the Chapter 70 funding formula to more accurately reflect what it costs to educate a child in the second decade of the 21st century.

I believe the primary factor in educational success is parental involvement and that government is a poor substitute for parents in raising and educating children.  I favor an educational choice voucher system that includes home-schooling as one of the choices.  I would shift the emphasis of the department of education to helping families guide and direct the education of their own children.  I would dramatically downsize the centralized bureaucracy to free money for more teachers and shift control of public schools to cities and towns.  In public schools I would launch a pilot project to introduce a cohort educational model in which groups of children stay together for the core curriculum from start to finish like a family rather than taking classes ala carte (except for electives).

First, we need to lift the cap on charter schools.  Charter schools are designed to bring innovation and experimentation to the classroom to get better results for our kids.  The legislature dropped the ball on this issue during the most recent session.  As Governor, I will file legislation to immediately lift the cap to provide more opportunities for our students.  Secondly, we need to expand the communication between charter schools and traditional public schools to share best practices across districts to benefit all of our students.  I have visited districts where there is no communication between the charter schools and traditional public schools.   That is not in the best interest of the kids.  As Governor, I will hold regional summits on education with all parties involved to make sure we are sharing our best practices across the state at the highest level.

Question 2: In the wake of the Education Reform Act, Massachusetts saw historic improvements in educational achievement. Our students are consistently the country’s best performers and in 2007 they scored among the best in the world in international math and science testing. But since then the data has been far less encouraging.  The commonwealth’s SAT scores are down 20 points from their 2006 highs, the percentage of third-graders scoring advanced or proficient on MCAS has fallen to the lowest level since 2009, and the portion of third graders who are proficient in reading is 10 percentage points lower than it was in 2002.  As governor, how do you plan to address this stagnating student achievement?

Massachusetts is rightly recognized as having one of the best public education systems in the country, thanks to the high standards established in the 1990s and the talent and hard-work of our teachers and school leaders.  Nevertheless, elementary reading scores have stagnated or fallen, large numbers of high school graduates are not prepared for college or the workforce, and we continue to see staggering achievement gaps between communities and across student sub-groups.  There is no silver bullet to fix these persistent problems, but there are promising strategies that are working here and around the country that we should adopt or expand.

First, we need to redouble our commitment to high expectations and accountability for results by ensuring that Massachusetts continues to have world-class academic standards and assessments (see question 3, below).  Second, we need to directly and urgently address the needs of students who are stuck in the Commonwealth’s lowest performing schools and districts by expanding the DESE’s capacity to intervene effectively with a comprehensive strategy for whole-system change, building on our recent success in Lawrence (see question 1, above).  Third, we need to help districts restructure their central offices and administrative functions in order to reduce overhead, empower school-level leadership, and free-up resources for increased student learning opportunities, including early education and extended day programs (see question 1, above).  Fourth, we must strengthen our successful career and technical schools, expanding their capacity and increasing the impact of partnerships with employers, while creating opportunities for all students to develop critical workplace skills with real work experience before they graduate from high school (see question 5, below).  Finally, we need to build on the tremendous success of our charter schools by removing the arbitrary restrictions that prevent the growth of successful charters and block the introduction of new talent and innovative school models (see question 4, below).

By the end of my first term, I hope to see the following results from the education reform initiatives described above:

  1. Significant improvement in the rates of both proficient and advanced performance on the state’s annual assessment and NAEP, especially in elementary reading and among low-income students; significant improvement in graduation rates for low-income students and in the percentage of high school graduates who enroll in college without having to take remedial courses
  2. Effective state-led interventions in the 5 lowest performing school districts and 50 lowest performing schools
  3. Significant increase in the number of low-income students with access to high-quality early education programs and longer school days or expanded learning time programs
  4. Significant increase in the percentage of students who graduate high school with meaningful work experience and certified job skills in high-demand occupations
  5. 50 new charter schools

No response.

It was important that in the last legislative session that the cap on charter schools was lifted, while at the same time it is troubling that funding for cities and towns through Chapter 70 continues to lag well behind the need. Improving funding includes ensuring that every school has the resources it needs to help every student who may be at risk of not achieving their potential does so. Last, it is important that education is not overly focused on standardized tests. The skills students require in the 21st century require critical thinking and creativity – excessive reliance on standardized testing undervalues that capacity in both teacher and student.

I believe in the back-to-basics approach to education along classical lines.  Students should be taught how to learn, not what to memorize and given broad freedom and latitude to pursue their own interests within set parameters. I would emphasize critical thinking, debate, research and communications skills in addition to mastery of reading, hard (not soft) science and math.  I would require every graduating student to demonstrate familiarity with the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and key writings of the Founding Fathers such as the Mayflower Compact and George Washington’s Inaugural and Farewell addresses.

43% of our third graders are not proficient in reading.  That is unacceptable.  Studies have shown that early education increases test scores, lowers drop-out rates, and will pay for the investment over time. I have a plan to provide early education services to all 4 year olds in the state, regardless of income level.  This will help working families by lowering childcare costs and allowing stay-at-home parents to return to the workforce sooner.  This is not an unfunded mandate on cities and towns because it will be paid for through efficiencies in our state’s healthcare budget.  At 42% of the state budget, healthcare currently consumes almost half of our state budget.  While we will see improved tests scores over time, we will ultimately close the skills gap and decrease income inequality.  I also believe we need to allow teachers and schools more flexibility in teaching and implementing curricula for their particular students.  What works in Lawrence might not work in Wellesley.

Question 3: Among the parts of the 1993 Education Reform Act that transformed public education in Massachusetts were academic standards in English and math that were aligned with MCAS and became a national model. In 2010, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education jettisoned those standards for ones that were developed by Washington, D.C.-based education trade groups and promoted by the federal government and wealthy private foundations. Do you support so-called Common Core or do you prefer the commonwealth’s homegrown standards?

The future of our economy depends on having a highly educated workforce that is second to none, not just in the United States, but globally.  Being above average isn’t good enough.  Although there is some value in having academic standards that are consistent across state lines, Massachusetts must ultimately control its own destiny to ensure that its academic standards are truly be world class.  We can’t settle for anything less.  I testified against adopting the Common Core standards in 2010.  Today, Common Core is being implemented in classrooms throughout the Commonwealth and the aligned PARCC assessments will be widely piloted in 2015.  We must conduct a thorough, rigorous and independent evaluation of the PARCC pilot test results to determine whether we are setting a higher standard. If we are not, I will not hesitate to pull Massachusetts out of Common Core and the PARCC consortium.

No response.

I support MCAS standards rather than Common Core.

I strongly oppose Common Core and believe it takes us in the wrong direction.  We need less not more control of schools and children by government bureaucrats.

I believe we need to support the Common Core standards that are stronger than our current standards and jettison those that are weaker.  We can’t go backwards when it comes to standards.  We need to push everyone in the education system to the top of their abilities.  I also believe that local officials do a better job for their town than the state, and I believe the state does a better job than the federal government.  When you are on the front lines dealing with problems, you know what the solutions are.  That is why I chose Yarmouth Board of Selectmen member Tracy Post as my running mate.

Question 4: Stanford University researchers found that Massachusetts has the nation’s best charter schools and that Boston charters are doing more to close achievement gaps than any other group of public schools in the country. Harvard and MIT researchers have reached similar conclusions about Boston charter schools. Despite these results, an effort to increase the number of charter schools in low-performing school districts recently failed. As governor, what would you do to support the Commonwealth’s charter schools?

Charters are not only providing thousands of underserved students with access to high-quality schools, they are also empowering low-income urban parents with choices that were once reserved for wealthier suburban families.  Denying them these options when they are so readily available is nothing less than an affront to their civil rights. I will work with the legislature and BESE over the next four years to significantly increase the number of charter schools, especially in low-performing districts with failing schools.

No response.

The cap on charter schools should be lifted. At the same time we must fulfill our responsibility to properly fund our public schools by updating and modernizing our Chapter 70 funding formula to reflect the cost of educating children in the public schools, as well as the costs associated with kids going to charter schools.

I strongly support Charter Schools and would like to see more of them and a wider variety of alternative models.  I graduated in 1976 from an alternative “Free School” in Greenfield that featured a cohort model of 12 students in a cooperative approach.  It was a wonderfully rich and exciting environment in which to learn (especially in comparison to my previous standard high school experience that bored me to tears and inspired me to habitual truancy).  I would love to give Massachusetts students the opportunity to experience that sort of self-directed learning in a family-style setting.

I have visited many charter schools throughout this campaign and have seen their amazing results in educating our kids.  Most schools aren’t pristine facilities and don’t have the technology that some of our wealthier districts possess, but they are still level one schools.  As Governor, I will push to lift the cap on charter schools but also keep a vigilant eye on the outcomes from these schools.  Charter schools are not a silver bullet, but they will receive support from my administration.

Question 5: The performance of regional vocational-technical school students on MCAS has improved by 40-50 percent in recent years and the schools also provide outstanding vocational training. Not surprisingly, the number of applications to these schools is on the rise and most have large waiting lists. As governor, what would you do to provide more students access to high-quality, regional voc-tech schools?

Although the focus of our education reform efforts over the past 20 years has been rightly on getting more students ready for success in college, we must now pay more attention to ensuring all of our high school graduates are also prepared for success in the workplace.  Specifically, we should look for opportunities to expand the student capacity of our existing career and technical schools, while upgrading their curriculum and technology to more closely align with current workplace needs.  As Governor, I will also direct the Board of Higher Education to extend the reach and increase the impact of our highest performing career and technical schools by inviting proposals to give them authority to grant associate degrees, either directly or in partnership with a public or private college.  At the same time, the state must take forceful action to turnaround those career and technical schools that are failing to meet the needs of their students and the local economy.  Career education should not be the sole purview of our career and technical schools; we should also actively explore innovative approaches to creating new career-oriented high schools and pathways within existing schools, in close collaboration with local employers and including extensive co-op or internship experiences.

No response.

Dynamic changes like this is part of why the state must be regularly updating the way in which it supports cities and towns with education dollars. We must increase funding for these programs, as they represent an important opportunity for students to get ahead and become productive – taxpaying – members of society.

Vocational schools fill an important role in our educational system that seems to be working.  I would like to see more of them and would also facilitate greater involvement of community businesses and industries to allow for a smoother transition from school to work for students on a vocational track.

Vocational-technical schools must be a part of the education landscape because not all jobs require a two or four year college degree.  I recently visited Blackstone Valley Voc-tech in Upton and was extremely encouraged by what the students were learning.  These kids are getting real world on-the-job training skills that they can use before they graduate.  In addition, they are being taught the soft skills that employers look for like the importance of showing up on time and working hard.  As baby boomers retire, we are going to have a real workforce crisis in this state to replace the knowledge base and skills of these workers.  That is why my education plan calls for transitioning Madison Park Vocational Technical School in Boston into a healthcare workforces training school with the help of the surrounding world class hospitals and institutions.  We know the jobs are going to be available, let’s train our students to have the skills to fill these jobs.

Question 6: Data shows that the METCO program which allows students in Boston and Springfield attend schools in nearby suburbs, is closing the achievement gap and improving educational outcomes. But budget cuts in recent years have resulted in approximately 10,000 students – about three times more than are in the program – being on two-to-five year waitlists.  As governor, what would you do to expand access to METCO for needy students?

METCO provides urban children of color with much needed school options outside their home districts.  As a matter of principle and policy, we should strive to provide all children and their families with as many high-quality school choices as possible.  To ensure METCO is sustainable over time, we should explore alternative financing options that do not rely solely on annual state appropriations.  We should also consider new incentives for the expansion of other inter-district choice programs, especially for low-income students in and around the Commonwealth’s urban centers.

No response.

The METCO program has extremely positive benefits for the children who participate. While my main focus is to improve every school district by revising the Foundation Budget, I believe we must take active steps to continue to provide opportunities for parents who want their children to have the opportunity to enroll in a different school through the METCO program. Wait lists for government programs like METCO reflect a need for not just sufficient funding for those programs, but to address the underlying causes of people wanting to join them, which is why it is so critical to revise the Foundation Budget.

No Response.

As Governor, I will increase access to METCO for students by increasing funding in the short term but also working with Boston and Springfield to achieve better outcomes so these students can go to school in their own neighborhoods.  I am a believer in building communities from the ground up.  We need to improve the schools in these areas so kids are allowed to attend school close to home and receive an education on par with those students who live in the suburbs.

Question 7: U.S. history standards and testing were part of Massachusetts’ education reform law. But in 2009, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education cancelled U.S. history MCAS implementation, citing the $2.4 million cost. What is your position on reinstating passage of a U.S. history MCAS test as a high school graduation requirement?

One of the central purposes of public education is to prepare young people to be informed and engaged citizens. The Commonwealth acknowledges this mission by specifically requiring all students to study American history and civics – the only such academic requirement under state law. And yet, we do not have a measurable standard for ensuring that all students leave high school with a sufficient knowledge of our history and political system to fulfill their civic duty. I support reinstating the U.S. history MCAS test as a graduation requirement, as soon as possible.

No response.

It is critical that every child knows the history of this country, and of our state. U.S. history – including civics – should be a mandatory requirement for graduation under MCAS.

I believe it was Aristotle who first said (and was echoed by Cicero) “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat its tragedies.”  We must inculcate in our students a knowledge of history.  Not the modernist liberal edited version they are getting in classes today, but the real stuff, including heavy emphasis on primary sources, especially as regarding early American history.  Testing that does not measure familiarity with the truth is worthless.

U.S. history should be reinstated as part of the MCAS to graduate from high school.  Too many students, and adults for that matter, don’t know basic history.  I believe that to understand the future we need to learn from the past.  Also, Massachusetts is the birthplace of the American Revolution and our students need to know the important role our state played in the birth of our nation.

Question 8: The Florida Virtual School is considered the gold standard in on-line learning in America. Despite two legislative efforts to encourage on-line learning in Massachusetts, the Bay State lags 15 years behind leading states in virtual/on-line/blended learning. How would you remedy this?

There are currently two virtual schools that have been authorized by DESE for operation in the Commonwealth.  We should continue to encourage and approve the development of additional independently managed on-line academies, especially those that address underserved student populations with a high degree of accountability for results.  Equally important, Massachusetts must accelerate the development of blended learning school models, which combine web-based tools and content with in-person instruction, by working in partnership with private “accelerators” like LearnLaunch and by inviting innovative charter school applications that reimagine the traditional school design.

No response.

The group of leaders we’ll convene will include experts in on-line learning. Given how far this field has come and student’s preferences, on-line learning will certainly be a bigger part of our educational system. However, in order to make this a reality we must first ensure that every school in the Commonwealth has access to broadband internet and every child has access to a computer in their school. I’m extremely concerned about how far behind we are in Massachusetts on this. Prioritizing these important investments and funding them through the reallocation of the huge amounts of money that is currently being misspent is key to my plans to bring about smart, brave reform in Massachusetts.

I strongly support on-line learning, which incidentally is a big part of most home-schools.  My educational choice voucher plan would allow parents who do not home-school to direct their children to private religious an secular schools which offer online learning.  I would work to promote online learning in the government schools as well.

As someone who sits on the board of an education company that uses technology to teach kids math in 41 states, we have increased scores across socio-economic groups, race, and ethnicity.  The beauty of this program is that it is very cheap to implement. For under $20 per student per year, we have managed to deliver high quality education and increased scores by as much as 30%.  As Governor, I will bring these types of solutions to our education system.  We need to be a leader in using technology in education as a state.