Dukakis: In the Trenches in the Statehouse

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

When he took over the Governor's chair in 1975, Michael S. Dukakis discovered that there was something terribly wrong in Massachusetts.

The state's budget deficit--already substantial by official estimates--turned out to be hundreds of millions of dollars larger than most people had realized.

Mr. Dukakis had vowed during the campaign that he would not raise taxes. In an attempt to keep that promise and meet his legal mandate for a balanced budget, he slashed deeply into spending for social-service programs, enraging his liberal supporters, and ultimately supported a tax increase.

In the midst of the budget crisis, however, spending for precollegiate education was left relatively unscathed.

To many educators, that crisis--with its parallels to the formidable fiscal problems the new President will face next year--says a lot about how Mr. Dukakis would act if he emerges the victor in next month's election.

"He tried to be as protective as possible of education," says Gregory Anrig, president of the Educational Testing Service. "We tried to fine-tune the cuts so that districts had to put up a little bit more but the programs continued," adds Mr. Anrig, who was state commissioner of education during Mr. Dukakis's first term.

"I thought he performed a thankless task quite courageously," he says.

Mr. Dukakis's education record, say those who have worked with him over the years, suggests that he would place a high priority on the issue in the Oval Office.

"He has been a very good education governor," observes Paul Gorden, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. "The record indicates that he has a commitment to education, and I think he would carry on the type of things he has done in Massachusetts."

As governor, Mr. Dukakis has played an important role in the passage of education-reform legislation that experts praise for its emphasis on local control and innovation. He also has fought for expansion of state aid to schools.

No 'Education Governor'

It is true, as former Education Secretary William J. Bennett and other critics have said, that Mr. Dukakis is not usually ranked among the leading "education governors." Certainly, his national reputation on the issue does not compare with that of Democrat Bill Clinton of Arkansas, for example, or Republican Thomas H. Kean of New Jersey.

Nor has the Democratic Presidential candidate chosen to make education an overriding theme of his campaign. Both Mr. Dukakis and his Republican opponent, George Bush, have been criticized by some educators and business leaders for their lack of emphasis on the problems of the nation's schools.

Mr. Dukakis's relatively modest campaign proposals for education and his reputation for frugality suggest to many that he would cast a skeptical eye on costly new education programs as Chief Executive. (See issues box, next page.)

"For all the talk about Governor Dukakis being the liberal, he's really a fiscal conservative," Mr. Anrig argues. "If anyone thinks he's going to come in and just dole out money, particularly with the deficit, they just don't know what he's made of."

"He has sometimes been more conservative than we would wish with public expenditures," observes Paul Devlin, president of the Massachusetts Federation of Teachers.

"But he was willing to support some things other governors would not have," Mr. Devlin says. "Our criticism has been of degree and not of substance."

The rival Massachusetts Education Association recently gave Governor Dukakis a grade of F for freezing $29 million in education grants during a budget crunch this summer. But, says Rosanne Bacon, president of the mea, that was just a small bump in a generally smooth relationship.

While Mr. Dukakis was wrong on that issue, she notes, "it's only one out of hundreds of issues that I think he's right on."

Both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have endorsed Mr. Dukakis and promised to provide him all-out electoral support.

Even if the two teachers' unions do prove to be a crucial element in giving Mr. Dukakis a come-from-behind victory, however, Massachusetts educators predict that they will not have any advantage in enlisting his support on spending battles.

"He always makes you make a case that makes sense," Ms. Bacon says. "He doesn't just look out there and say, 'There's 60,000 bodies whose support will mean a lot to me in my election.' He approaches everything intellectually."

'Full-Scale Modernization'

The centerpiece of Governor Dukakis's education record is the major reform bill he helped push through, after a long struggle, during his second term in office.

He had returned to the statehouse in 1983, following his victorious re-match with Edward J. King, who had defeated him for re-election in 1978.

At the time, the national education-reform movement was just starting to grow. The landmark federal report, A Nation at Risk, was released that April, and Mr. Dukakis was one of many governors who began talking about reforms.

In speeches that spring, he said that boosting the state role in education and "full-scale modernization of the schools" was the "biggest goal" of his administration.

Meanwhile, the leaders of the state legislature's Joint Education Committee had appointed a commission to make recommendations for reform legislation.

Despite his personal interest in the issue, Mr. Dukakis agreed to let the committee take the lead, say legislators and educators who were involved in the debate.

"What you hear about him being a consensus-builder is true--he knew that the best result would come from a coalition in the legislature," comments Robert R. Spillane, who was superintendent in Boston from 1981 to 1985 and served on the study panel. He is now superintendent of the Fairfax County, Va., schools.

An ambitious reform bill was drafted in 1984, and passed the House after lengthy debate. It was never considered in the Senate, however, due to concerns about its costs, which Mr. Dukakis shared, and a leadership struggle taking place at the time.

In 1985, the governor took the initiative by introducing his own reform bill. With Mr. Dukakis playing a much more assertive role, the proposal became the basis of the legislation enacted later that year.

"He said there was no way he would wait for us to come up with something, because it didn't work the last time," recalls State Representative Nicholas Paleologos, who became House education-committee chairman in 1985.

Mr. Paleologos says the Governor's main interests during the ne8gotiations were "teachers and teaching" and equalizing educational opportunity.

At the time, however, Mr. Dukakis was at odds with teachers' unions on several issues. Union leaders criticized his willingness to scale back some provisions of earlier bills, such as those that would have mandated a proposed minimum salary and provided more money to increase the salaries of higher-paid teachers.

Class-size limits and a provision lowering the age at which teachers could retire with most of their pension benefits also were eliminated in Mr. Dukakis's 1985 proposal.

Reform Provisions

As approved by the legislature, the Public School Improvement Act:

Urged towns to set a minimum teacher salary of $18,000 and provided state funding for the first year's increase, as well as for "professional-development" grants to teachers.

Created "equal-opportunity" grants to narrow the gap in resources between wealthy and poor towns.

Established "school-improvement" grants based on enrollment and controlled by local advisory councils of parents, educators, and students.

Created the Lucretia Crocker fellowship program, through which the state pays teachers who are released from their classroom responsibilities for one year to disseminate innovative programs.

Established the Horace Mann Teachers Program, which provides state grants for teachers who take on additional responsibilities, such as curriculum development and the training of other teachers.

Provided for more testing of student achievement.

Created a state grant program that assists districts in providing early-childhood education.

Established a study committee to make recommendations on teacher compensation. The panel's mandate was later broadened.

Further Reforms

Late last year, the committee's report resulted in a second reform law, which provided funds to raise salaries to $20,000; established a program to provide money and relax regulations for so-called "Carnegie schools" that experiment with giving teachers more authority; created a loan-forgiveness program for new teachers; and created "professional-development centers" for inservice training of teachers.

In a related effort, the state boards overseeing precollegiate and higher education co-sponsored a study committee on teacher training, which recently recommended that teachers be required to complete master's degrees in programs heavy on practical experience in order to receive full certification.

Several of these initiatives bear similarities to Dukakis campaign proposals for a "National Teacher Corps," loan forgiveness for potential teachers, "centers of excellence" for teacher training, and a federal role in the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

Similarly, a Dukakis promise to encourage states to adopt college-tuition prepayment plans is based on a Massachusetts program he proposed earlier this year.

Local Emphasis Lauded

Observers of the education-reform movement have praised Massachusetts' reform efforts for avoiding state-mandated standards in favor of programs that encourage innovation at the district and school level.

The Carnegie schools program, in particular, has been seen as one of the first efforts in the nation to experiment with the restructuring of schools.

"They used an inducement approach, not very regulatory, in keeping with the state's tradition of local control and against the bandwagon of state control," says Susan Fuhrman, director of the Center for Policy Research in Education at Rutgers University.

"Our feeling is that they have a very progressive program," adds Beverly Anderson, associate executive director of the Education Commission of the States. "They're one of the states that's involved in giving people opportunities to try things."

Budget Stands

Teachers' unions have criticized Mr. Dukakis for not spending more money on the new reform programs, which are slated in his 1989 budget proposal to receive about $140 million--a $36-million increase from 1988.

This summer, for example, union officials decried Mr. Dukakis's decision to freeze $29 million in equal-opportunity grants and $1 million budgeted for Carnegie schools because of financial uncertainty.

The Governor subsequently guaranteed that towns would receive the equal-opportunity money and released $250,000 for a scaled-down version of the Carnegie program.

In general, though, education interests have been pleased with the way he has treated them at budget time.

One of his early campaign promises, which he has kept, was to put 40 percent of any growth in state revenue into cash payments to local governments, which provide the bulk of state education funding in Massachusetts.

The payments are calculated under a formula that takes school needs into account and are intended to aid schools, although towns can use them for other purposes as well.

Mr. Dukakis has consistently made local aid a priority, according to observers in the state. It has increased each year from 1986 through 1988.

Mr. Dukakis also has pushed for changes in the local-aid formula that were supported by educators. In 1978, he led the fight for a new formula that favored poorer communities. In 1983, he pushed unsuccessfully to require towns to spend a certain portion of the aid on education.

Higher-Education Criticisms

The state's higher-education community has been more critical of Mr. Dukakis's budgets, and of his commitment to their interests.

Robert C. Wood, who was president of the University of Massachusetts system from 1970 to 1978, circulated a letter last year contending that Mr. Dukakis had offered only "lip-service support" for public higher education--a criticism that has been made by other officials and faculty representatives.

The Governor is more interested in private colleges than in the public system, has proposed insufficient budget increases, and has appointed people he can control to governing boards, Mr. Woods charged. He said the legislature was responsible for funding increases for higher education.

Critics cite a 1986 interview in The Boston Globe, in which Mr. Dukakis said public colleges in Massachusetts should not try to compete in all ways with the state's prestigious private institutions.

"We aren't California, we're not Texas, and we're not Michigan," he said. "We're a different state. We do happen to have some of the finest institutions in the world. And I don't think it makes sense for us to duplicate that."

Robert B. Schwartz, Mr. Dukakis's chief education aide, says the Governor submits relatively modest budgets for all state departments because revenue projections are uncertain at the beginning of the process.

Mr. Woods was acting out of anger over clashes he had with Mr. Dukakis years ago, he contends, adding that some University of Massachusetts officials resent the money the Governor has given to small regional colleges.

Mr. Schwartz also notes that the Governor has supported budgets that have increased spending for higher education dramatically, and that state scholarship aid has quadrupled since the start of his second term.

Governmental Reform

Mr. Dukakis did not begin his political career with the interest in education evidenced by his recent activity. Instead, he focused his energies on making the operations of government more efficient and equitable.

He was a serious student, graduating with honors from Swarthmore College and Harvard Law School. He attended public elementary and secondary schools in his hometown of Brookline, as did his children.

In his eight years as a legislator, beginning in 1962, he focused on such issues as mass transportation, metropolitan planning, and government ethics. His most notable legislative achievement was winning enactment of a no-fault automobile-insurance law.

Mr. Dukakis voted for the one major education bill to emerge from the legislature during his tenure: the Willis-Harrington Act, which gave the state board of education a mandate to increase standards.

Mr. Dukakis's first education initiative as governor suggested his interest in improving the functioning of government.

The bill, passed in 1976, revised a state program of assistance for school building projects, by putting a cap on costs, preventing towns from billing the state before construction began, and prohibiting state reimbursement for nonessential "luxury items."

Mr. Dukakis came to prominence in Massachusetts at a time when battles over the racial balance of Boston schools were creating deep and bitter divisions within the community.

Desegregation Controversy

As a member of the legislature, he had voted for the controversial Racial Imbalance Act of 1965, which called for revocation of state aid to districts with schools in which more than half of the students were members of minority groups.

School officials in Boston refused to take any desegregation action until ordered to by federal courts, however. As a result, the law cost the city substantial amounts of state aid before the court ruled, not long after Mr. Dukakis moved into the governor's office in 1975.

Mr. Dukakis was sharply criticized by desegregation proponents during the 1974 campaign for abandoning his support of the racial-imbalance measure. He was accused of trying to exploit white voters' anger at the incumbent Republican governor, Francis Sargent, for supporting the law.

During the campaign, Mr. Dukakis proposed a "community schools" plan, which called for abolishing the city's central school committee and ceding control of individual schools to elected neighborhood boards.

Although the plan also called for integrated, citywide, part-time enrichment programs and integrated magnet schools, critics charged that it essentially would have abandoned attempts at desegregation.

"I wasn't ducking anything," Mr. Dukakis said in defense of his 1974 proposal in an interview with The Los Angeles Times last January. "I was trying to come up with a thoughtful, sensible solution which provided a quality, integrated educational experience."

As governor, however, Mr. Dukakis did not push for implementation of the community-schools plan. And he mostly stayed out of the strident debate over Boston's busing crisis while the school committee and the state board wrangled in court, observers recall.

Republican Attacks

While Mr. Dukakis points with pride to his education record, it is also the source of several issues that his Republican opponents have used against him.

Early in the general-election campaign, Mr. Bennett launched a scathing attack on the Democrat's education record. Mr. Dukakis had done little to reform education, he charged, arguing that Massachusetts' "average" performance had not improved.

Mr. Bennett's claim appeared to conflict with a 1986 assessment, in which he praised the state for increases in its average Scholastic Aptitude Test scores and for the 1985 reforms.

But the most prominent Republican criticism of Mr. Dukakis's education record has focused on his 1977 veto of legislation mandating fines for teachers who failed to lead their students in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Although Mr. Dukakis says he favors voluntary recitation of the pledge, he vetoed the legislation because the state Supreme Court advised him that it was unconstitutional. It was enacted over his veto but never enforced.

Vice President Bush has said repeatedly that he "would have found a way to sign that bill."

In the Oct. 13 Presidential debate, Mr. Bush pointed to the case of Gerard T. Indelicato.

Mr. Indelicato, who was Mr. Dukakis's chief education aide from 1983 to 1986, was recently sentenced to a prison term for misdirecting state funds when he was the state's director of adult education from 1979 to 1983. He faces further charges involving his activities in the Governor's office and at Bridgewater State College, where he was named president in 1986.

Mr. Bush raised the issue in response to a question about Reagan Administration appointees who left office under a cloud.

"His chief education adviser is in jail," Mr. Bush said. "He's in jail because he betrayed the public trust--the head of education."

Mr. Dukakis, who has not been accused of any wrongdoing, promptly denounced his former aide's behavior when it became known, and initiated a state investigation.

Mr. Bush and Mr. Bennett have also attacked Mr. Dukakis's recent veto of legislation that would have allowed parents in some Massachusetts cities to send their children to suburban schools.

The Republicans, who have emphasized their support for parental choice, have sought to portray Mr. Dukakis as siding with educational "interest groups" on the issue.

Mr. Dukakis said he opposed the bill because it could increase segregation and offered no safeguards to prevent the best students and needed tax dollars from being drained from city schools.

State teachers' union leaders were pleased by Mr. Dukakis's veto. But they have expressed concern over his proposal to try out the idea in one city and study its effects.

Vol. 08, Issue 08

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on edweek.org, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories