Blog: The Educated Reporter

Progressives in Massachusetts Shortchange Poor Kids, Governor Says

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker speaks at EWA's National Seminar in Boston. (Photo by Katherine Taylor for EWA)

Massachusetts has long been the poster child for education.

For years now it’s ranked at the top in the country for math and reading achievement, boasted impressive graduation rates and made a significant financial investments over the last few decades to get there.

It’s no slouch when it comes to higher education either. Massachusetts harbors some of the best colleges and universities in the world, and it’s joining a growing number of states looking to make college more affordable.

Just two weeks ago, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker announced that full-time community college students who maintain a 3.0 grade point average will be eligible for a 10 percent rebate on tuition if they transfer into a bachelor’s degree program at a state university.

But for all its accolades, the state still grapples with many of the hot-button education issues that other states do, including stubborn achievement gaps, racial flashpoints and divisions over charter school policy.

“We don’t believe we can afford to rest on our laurels,” Baker said during the closing keynote speech at the 69th annual Education Writers Association National Seminar.

To address many of those issues, Baker said, the state is set to reimagine its K-12 system by rethinking standards and assessments, as well as by making a $100 million investment into boosting its vocational and technical programs.

And if that means Common Core State Standards, so be it, he said. And if that means the aligned Common Core assessments, that’s fine, too, he said.

“I want Massachusetts to do what makes most sense for the kids in Massachusetts,” he said.

That’s largely the straightforward legislative approach he’s taken during the first 16 months of his administration – and one he learned at a very young age by listening to his Democratic mother and Republican father argue at the dinner table.

“You can disagree without being disagreeable,” he said. “Nobody has the corner on a right answer. … And you can learn more from someone you disagree with than someone with whom you agree.”

Among other things, those beliefs have led him to handpick Democrats for spots in his Republican administration.

I couldn’t care less “about what letter was at the end of somebody’s name,” he said. “It’s about the work, and that meant to me you should put the best person in the job.”

At this moment, however, the governor and state education officials are facing some issues that aren’t so cut and dried.

For example, the state is roiling over a ballot measure set to go before voters in November that would allow the creation or expansion of 12 charter schools per year.

“I expect that it will be a very engaging conversation with respect [to] whether or not we’re going to do that,” Baker said. “For me, this isn’t very complicated. [Charter schools] have significantly outperformed traditional schools.”

Eighty charter schools in Massachusetts currently serve about 3 percent of the student population. Last year, more than 18,500 students entered the lottery system to win one of Boston’s 2,100 open seats, according to the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association.

I find it hard to believe, Baker said, that “a state that believes in progressive policies and opportunity for everybody would have so much trouble finding its way to make it possible for kids and families from low-income communities and underperforming school districts to get the same kind of shot at getting the kind of education for their kids as I got for mine.”

A new poll shows three-quarters of Boston parents are on Baker’s side.

The same poll, which was conducted by a pro-charter school group, also found that a majority of Boston parents support Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s plan to create a single, unified system for applying for seats in charter and traditional public schools.

But critics of the governor’s charter school cap lift argue that charters siphon already scarce resources from traditional public schools – schools where the majority of students attend. And they’ve skewered the mayor’s proposal as well, arguing it would lead not only to an expansion of charters, but also the closure of district schools.

School choice is not the only issue Massachusetts is slogging through.

A recent report from the Boston Globe showed that the city had stopped recruiting high-achieving minority students for an admissions test-preparation program for the city’s heralded Boston Latin School, a high-performing public school that students must test into.

In the past, recruiting minorities for the free testing program has helped to boost black and Latino enrollment at the school. But the Globe report shows 72 percent of students enrolled in the testing program today are white or Asian.

As a result, Walsh has announced the city will add about 300 seats to the admissions test-preparation program and will specifically seek to fill those seats with students from schools underrepresented in the program.

But the incident highlights the breadth of racial and segregation issues that have plagued school districts across the country for centuries.

When asked about the issue, Baker said he looked forward to the findings of an ongoing investigation into the issue by the U.S. attorney’s office.

He underscored, however, that the larger issue at play is how to level the playing field not only for the handful of students who are admitted into Boston Latin but for entire communities. And one way to do that, he said, is through raising the charter school cap.

“I think one of the things we should remember here is that there is one Boston Latin,” he said. “But there is a real chance for us to create educational opportunity [through charter schools].”