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Published in Print: December 1, 1999, as Lawmakers Override Mass. Governor's Spending Cuts

Lawmakers Override Mass. Governor's Spending Cuts

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Emerging from one of the most protracted budget negotiations in Massachusetts history, lawmakers there have restored some $90 million in education improvement money to the final state spending plan. Gov. Paul Cellucci had slashed that funding from a House-Senate compromise package passed only a week earlier.

The Democratic-dominated legislature's unanimous override of the Republican governor's veto, part of a $250 million package of cuts to the $20.8 billion state budget for fiscal 2000, touched off an intense debate about Mr. Cellucci's commitment to the 1993 Education Reform Act. The seven-year improvement plan, now in its final phase, provided for Massachusetts' largest- ever hike in school spending, accompanied by new academic standards and related tests.

Mr. Cellucci had justified his Nov. 16 veto as necessary to rein in free-spending lawmakers.

"Runaway spending is a concern here," John Birtwell, a spokesman for the governor, said last week. He added that such cutbacks were necessary in order to limit taxes, especially in case the state's roaring economy goes south.

But Alison Franklin, an aide to Senate President Thomas F. Birmingham, one of the law's main authors, said that given the overwhelming bipartisan support for education change and the flush state coffers, the governor's move was hard to justify "either politically or on policy grounds."

"There are two main tenets of education reform: to provide adequate funding to school districts to meet high standards, and to hold them to high standards," she said. "Every senator and representative would have been hard-pressed to explain a veto that would have so negatively affected schools in their municipality."

Others said the veto brought into question Mr. Cellucci's commitment to the public schools.

"It's ironic that a governor elected on an education platform would veto these funds," Jo Blum, the director of government relations for the Massachusetts Teachers Association, a National Education Association affiliate, said. The funds are "about whether teachers have the resources to teach and students have the resources to meet the high standards set by the state."

Just about everyone agreed that the education cuts sought by the governor would have come at a critical time.

'Unacceptable' Results

In early November, Gov. Cellucci and state Commissioner of Education David P. Driscoll released scores from the second round of the state's student test, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment Program, or MCAS. And, similar to the first round, more than half the students who took the test ranked in the "failing" or "needs improvement" category in nearly every subject.

Mr. Cellucci called the test results "unacceptable," while Mr. Driscoll said they showed "we all have work to do." MCAS scores were so low, in fact, that the state school board voted Nov. 23 to set a low passing mark for the class of 2003, which must pass the test in order to graduate from high school. The 8-1 board vote set a passing grade for the state assessment at 220, which is just one point from the state test's lowest scoring category—"failing." The board voted unanimously to raise that bar over time.

Jonathan Palumbo, a spokesman for the state education department, said the new standard was a fair start, and represented a vast improvement over the status quo, which requires only that graduating students take more than one year of American history and four years of physical education.

"The test is only in its second year," he said. "We're trying to keep faith with the average student. Obviously, our ultimate goal is to have as many students as possible scoring" in the highest categories.

The school board is scheduled to take up a permanent vote on the new graduation standards in January after public hearings.

Since the fiscal 2000 budget represented the last major state installment of the 1993 education improvement law, many were left wondering why the governor—who served as acting governor after Republican William F. Weld resigned in 1997 and was elected in his own right last November—would decide to back off after years of pledging his support for the law.

"This is the last of the ninth inning in terms of the state government fulfilling its commitment to education reform,'' said S. Paul Reville, a co-director of the Pew Forum on Standards- Based Reform at Harvard University. "This money was clearly due. It was built into the law.

"The idea of withholding the last installment," he said, "would have provided a pretext for those in the field" to back off from their commitment to meeting high standards.

Vol. 19, Issue 14, Page 18

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