This article originally appeared in Commonwealth Magazine.
By Michael Jonas.
EDUCATION POLICY INITIATIVES may take a back seat in the state Senate to a focus on boosting school funding through the proposed “millionaire’s tax” on high earners.
Senate President Stan Rosenberg told an education group on Tuesday afternoon that his priority is pushing the proposal for a new income tax, which supporters want to have appear on the 2018 statewide ballot, and he worries that other education policy debates, including on a bill supported by the state’s largest teachers union, could hurt the effort.
“My opinion at this point is that we focus on the fair share ballot question that’s coming up in November of ’18, because that $2 billion or so that will be raised will be the major source for funding the future of education,” said Rosenberg. “And anything that distracts from that debate and divides us and doesn’t allow us to move forward successfully on that is, I think, a mistake.”
Rosenberg’s comments came in a question-and-answer session following remarks he delivered to the Massachusetts chapter of Democrats for Education Reform.
He was responding to a question asking his view on a bill supported by the Massachusetts Teachers Association that calls for a three-year moratorium on the use of high-stakes tests, including the 10th grade exam that students must currently pass to graduate from high school. Some view the legislation as the first step in an effort by the teachers union to dismantle the state’s system of education standards and accountability.
Rosenberg’s answer was not what the union wanted to hear. His comment likely pleased many at the luncheon event at the Omni Parker House – Democrats for Education Reform has been a strong supporter of the accountability framework the state put in place with the 1993 Education Reform Act.
But it also suggests Rosenberg will not be keen on considering other legislation that reform advocates have said would strengthen school accountability. He was asked, for example, about bills to grant broader autonomy over the length of the school day and teacher hiring to more low-performing schools.
The legislation, which has been filed several times in recent years, would extend school-based powers now given to the lowest-performing schools to those ranked in the category just above the bottom. Rep. Alice Peisch, the House education committee cochair – who was in the audience – has sponsored one version of the legislation.
Rosenberg begged off, jokingly asking an aide what his position is on the issue. “You’re over my head right now,” he then said about the bill. “Suffice it is say I’m open to hearing arguments for sensible change anywhere it needs to be made.”
But Rosenberg suggested he is not inclined to consider big changes in education policy until the millionaire’s tax is settled. The proposed constitutional amendment would place an additional tax of 4 percentage points on individual income that exceeds $1 million. It is estimated that the added levy, which supporters want earmarked for education and transportation, would generate $1 to $2 billion per year.
To appear on the 2018 ballot, the proposal must garner at least 50 votes this year or next in a constitutional conventional – a combined House-Senate session of the state’s 200 lawmakers.
Rosenberg talked about the state’s overall progress in education, saying the education reform effort has made a difference, but that progress has been at a standstill on one important indicator.
“Although we’ve made significant progress, we are stalled on third grade reading tests,” he said. “We have not moved the needle in spite of the great work.”
Studies have shown that third grade reading proficiency is a strong predictor of students’ success through high school and beyond. More than 40 percent of Massachusetts third graders are not proficient in reading.
Rosenberg’s reference to stalled reading scores served as an introduction to comments about the Kids First initiative, an ambitious Senate agenda unveiled last week. The Senate plans to propose a set of education-related priorities that reach from pre-natal services through post-secondary education and training. The multiyear effort would cost more than $1 billion over several years, according an account of last week’s rollout.
Attention in education policy circles is increasingly turning to concern about longer-term outcomes. Higher high school graduation rates and greater rates of college enrollment are not necessarily translating into degree completion. The result can leave young adults in a bad hole with no degree but lots of student debt.
Rosenberg, whose Senate district includes the University of Massachusetts flagship campus in Amherst, has been a vocal advocate for UMass and the public higher education system. But when asked about the idea of greater accountability for outcomes being placed on high schools or public higher education institutions, he again left the education crowd with little to chew on, saying he would give the issues some thought.