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Massachusetts Lawmakers Consider Revised School-Reform Bill

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Less than six months after failing to move a multimillion-dollar school-reform bill through the legislature, Massachusetts lawmakers are considering legislation with a decidedly different look.

Several of the failed bill's most costly provisions have been dropped, and in several key places, incentives have been substituted for mandates.

The new bill also has the support of Gov. Michael Dukakis, a Democrat, who had expressed serious reservations about parts of last year's bill. That measure, which carried a three-year cost of $565 million--although some said it could have cost millions more--was approved by the House but died in the Senate.

Some Similarities

The new version, which would cost $265.7 million in new state3funds over three years and a cumulative total of about $525 million, was taken up last week by the House Committee on Ways and Means, after emerging from the legislature's Joint Committee on Education.

It retains many of the programs included in last year's package, including funds for early-childhood education, raises in teachers' salaries to an $18,000 minimum, and "equal education opportunity" grants for poor districts that would reduce disparities in per-pupil spending.

It would also institute a statewide testing program, a core curriculum, and a computer-training program for teachers and students, and would raise graduation requirements.

Mandates, Costs Dropped

The minimum teachers' salary is one area in which the new bill substitutes incentives for mandates.6The state would pay the cost of raising salaries to the $18,000 minimum, but the bill leaves it up to local authorities to decide whether to adopt the minimum. Last year's bill mandated the minimum.

In addition, the new bill, unlike last year's version, would not pay the "ripple" cost of salary increases for teachers now earning more than the $18,000 minimum. And whereas last year's bill would have lowered from 62 to 55 years the age at which teachers could retire with 80 percent of their pension benefits, the new legislation leaves the age at 62.

The cost of the "ripple" payments had been estimated at $336 million over three years, while the pension plan could have cost the state $700 million in the first year alone, according to aides to Governor Dukakis.

The early-education programs that would have been mandated un-der last year's bill have also become a local option under the new bill.

In addition, the stringent teacher-certification standards included in last year's bill have been dropped, and would instead be the subject of further study. The new bill, in fact, would allow "qualified but noncertified" personnel to teach on a per-diem basis.

Experimental Programs Added

Although the committee's bill is modeled on a plan that Governor Dukakis submitted in late January, the committee has added several elements of its own.

The revisions are significant enough to have drawn the opposition of the Massachussets Teacher's Association, which had supported the Dukakis plan. The 60,000-member mta is the state's National Education Association affiliate.

For example, while the Dukakis plan included $1,800 in "ripple" money per teacher over three years, the committee bill eliminates all ripple money, and replaces it with professional-development grants. But these, according to the mta, would provide no more than $740 per teacher over the same period.

The committee's other changes include:

School-improvement grants, distributed to each school in the state, based on the number of students enrolled and regardless of need. Local advisory councils of parents, school administrators, teachers, and students, would be established to administer the funds, which would be restricted to new programs and would not be subject to school-committee approval. Grant money would total some $40 million in 1988.

Compensatory-education grants for remedial programs, totaling $28- million by 1988.

A teacher learning corps, which would engage undergraduates in3terested in teaching in tutorial work in schools. The corps would be supported with $100,000 the first year and $2 million the second.

Project Reach, a competition among districts for prize money based on academic achievemnent, to be funded at $500,000 the first year and $3 million the second year.

Teachers' Objections

According to Stephen Wollmer, director of communications for the mta, the union supports aspects of the new bill. But it has three major objections, he said.

It opposes the school-improvement grants and Project Reach, which Mr. Wollmer dismissed as "social experimentation" that lessens the impact of the equal-opportunity grants.

It also takes exception to stripping the bill of tightened certification standards, allowing uncertified people to teach, and eliminating the ripple-effect money.

"They really have gutted the Dukakis bill," Mr. Wollmer said.

But Gerald Indelicato, an aide to Governor Dukakis, said the Governor's proposal remains "approximately 90 percent intact" despite the committee's changes, which he said may strengthen it.

The Governor, he said, is "fully in support" of the committee's bill, adding, "We believe this has the greatest opportunity of passage.''

The Massachussetts Municipal Association, which represents the state's cities and towns, apparently agrees. "In general, we are much more favorably disposed toward this bill than the one filed last year," said Daniel Soyer, director of communications for the group. "It appears to have much to recommend it."

Mr. Soyer said the only provision of the bill his organization opposes is the $18,000 minimum salary, which he said might make other public employees "feel slighted."

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