When thinking of a governor’s last act before leaving office, pardons for long-time prisoners usually come to mind. For Deval Patrick, the last big move came five months after his “lone walk” out of the State House — but it was far from a pardon. The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s vote to place the Holyoke Public Schools into state receivership, and this week’s naming of a receiver, signals the last major act of the Patrick administration. During this time of exile from the corner office, Democrats should highlight this step towards a more equitable education system — taken despite fierce objections from powerful entrenched interests — as evidence of a Democratic administration willing to be on the front lines of more effective government.
Education commissioner Mitchell Chester, appointed early in Gov. Patrick’s tenure, pushed hard for receivership, noting that the state began considering next steps for Holyoke’s chronically low-performing schools soon after he was appointed. The drastic action was made possible by a law shepherded through the Democratic Legislature by Patrick’s secretary of education, Paul Reville, with help from federal incentives provided by the governor’s close friend, Barack Obama. In 2011, the state first intervened using the new law to put the Lawrence schools in receivership. Early results there are encouraging.
Patrick famously said that Democrats need to “grow a backbone” and deal with major issues head on. It is difficult to think of a more pressing problem than public education. The Supreme Judicial Court decreed in its 1993 interpretation of the state constitution that “the commonwealth has a duty to provide an education for all its children, rich and poor, in every city and town of the Commonwealth.” Massachusetts is not meeting that obligation in Holyoke — which amounts to a moral and constitutional crisis.
It is just as difficult to think of a problem requiring more of a backbone. The state’s largest teachers union, the 110,000 member Massachusetts Teachers Association, publicly threatened to pull millions of dollars of television ads off the air last fall because Martha Coakley had the gumption to say that students in low-performing districts could benefit from “increased opportunities.”
It takes some pretty significant intestinal fortitude to go up against powerful special interest groups who want elected leaders and candidates to simply recite talking points — and to instead take part in a progressive movement toward finding solutions in some of the state’s most challenged school districts.
Such leadership does not come without risk, as the MTA threats proved last fall. Focusing on the right of a child to an equitable education may be more in line with Democratic rhetoric, but the rights of adults has historically helped more on election day.
By now we’re all familiar with Patrick’s personal story of growing up on Chicago’s gritty South Side and the doors which suddenly opened when he was given the opportunity to attend Milton Academy.
We need to ensure that all students have opportunity and choice in education. And the only way to do that is to make all our public schools excellent options.
Seeing the power that kind of choice can have on a child’s future has been a constant source of inspiration for Patrick and has had an incredible impact on the children of the Commonwealth, especially in our Gateway Cities. With more than 25 percent of the state’s children living in Gateway Cities and two-thirds of those children living in low-income households, it’s clear that residents of these communities were lucky to have a Democrat willing to make aggressive changes.
Democrats should be called to more than simply “protect” education as we were in a recent email from the state party. Instead, we should be inspired to improve, innovate, and take aggressive action to ensure that all of our children have access to the high quality education they are promised as a fundamental constitutional right. We are not, and cannot be, the status quo party.
Over the eight years Deval Patrick was governor, he accomplished many things, but his true legacy to Massachusetts will be his impact on our education system. Watching the unfolding situations in both the Lawrence and Holyoke school systems should give all of us a greater appreciation for the lasting effects of what happens when Democrats flex that backbone.
Originally published in Commonwealth Magazine.
Liam Kerr is Massachusetts state director of Democrats for Education Reform.