Education Takes Center Stage in Mass. Race

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Taking their cue from polls showing that education is Massachusetts voters' top concern, players on the main stage of the state's political theater have left virtually no school issue out of the fray.

Never before in the state has education featured so prominently in a race for governor, observers there say. Be it teacher or student testing, the state school board, class-size reduction, or teacher professional development, it's all been fair game for the Republican contender, acting Gov. Paul Cellucci, and his Democratic counterpart, state Attorney General Scott Harshbarger.

"It's rather unprecedented," said Stephen E. Gorrie, the president of the 83,000-member Massachusetts Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association. "This is the first time I've seen [schools] take such a prominent role" in an election.

"Education is in the forefront," added S. Paul Reville, a co-director of the Pew Forum on Standards-Based Reform at Harvard University. "And it's consistent with what I'm hearing nationally in races around the country. Education keeps emerging as a top priority."

Massachusetts is one of 36 states with contests for governor on the Nov. 3 ballot.

Education Governor

The Bay State's spotlight on schools comes at a time when the Massachusetts economy is humming along, welfare rolls have been cut, and the crime rate has ebbed.

It also comes just as the final phases of the state's multibillion-dollar school reform law--the Education Reform Act of 1993--are going into effect.

That seven-year plan provided for the state's largest-ever hike in school spending, accompanied by new academic standards.

It lays out in detail what all public school students should know in the core subjects of English and language arts, mathematics, science and technology, and history and social science. It also requires the testing of students--the first tests were administered last spring--on the new curriculum in grades 4, 8, and 10. ("New Tests Send Bay State Schools Scrambling," April 8, 1998.)

Not surprisingly, the reform law has become a prime political issue this year, with each candidate accusing the other of failing to support the plan until the election campaign.

"Education reform is a true test of leadership," Mr. Harshbarger, who is at the end of his second term as attorney general, said at a recent press conference. "And Paul Cellucci has failed that test."

To which Mr. Cellucci, who has served as acting governor for a little over a year since Gov. William F. Weld resigned, countered at a press conference of his own: "Scott Harshbarger did not go down and testify in favor of the [Education Reform Act]. He's the one who was missing in action."

Perhaps the biggest distinction between the two aspirants relates to the sometimes-controversial state school board and its irascible chairman, John R. Silber, a Weld appointee whom Mr. Cellucci has solidly backed.

"The big political question in this race has to do with the leadership of the state board," said Robert B. Schwartz, the president of Achieve Inc., a Cambridge, Mass.-based education resource center for governors and business leaders that seeks to promote high academic standards. The center was created after the 1996 national education summit of governors and corporate executives in Palisades, N.Y.

If elected, Mr. Harshbarger has promised to take "personal responsibility for the improvement of public education" by dismissing Mr. Silber, the chancellor of Boston University, and serving as the board's chairman himself. That idea has drawn complaints that such a dual role would further politicize education and place huge demands on the governor's time.

But some say Mr. Harshbarger's plan to lead the state board is more symbolic than practical.

"He's saying to the public, '[Education] is my top priority,'" Mr. Reville of Harvard University said. "It strikes a responsive chord."

The race also comes on the tail of the first rounds of Massachusetts' new teacher-licensing test, also mandated by the reform law.

Teacher Tests

The test's dismal results--including a 59 percent overall failure rate posted in June and a 47 percent overall failure rate in August--drew unflattering national attention and helped frame the final weeks of the candidates' education agendas.2

Mr. Cellucci made mandatory competency testing of all teachers and the dismissal of those who fail one of the cornerstones of his education plan. But Mr. Harshbarger has said that, while he supports teacher testing, such tests should serve as only one part of a complete teacher evaluation.

For their part, teachers in the state--who say they were blindsided by the bad press they received after the release of the first test results--say that while they support the idea of such testing, the issue should not be so front-and-center in the campaign.

"It's absolutely mind-boggling that the teacher tests have played such a dominant role," Mr. Gorrie of the MTA said. "It's so unfair. The failure rate snowballed so quickly to include all teachers."

Kathy Kelly, the president of the Massachusetts Federation of Teachers, a 20,000-member American Federation of Teachers affiliate, said the state's teachers have never been so demoralized.

"They're starting the school year off in what I think is the lowest morale in a long time," she said. Public officials "have impugned the reputation of every teacher in the commonwealth without any sense of fairness and unfairness."

From Outrage to Reform?

But some experts suggest that, in the end, the focus on education--however negative or thin on specifics--will serve to benefit schools.

"It's a double-edged sword," Mr. Reville said. "You don't get reform until you have outrage."

"It has to be good for the education community," added Mr. Schwartz of Achieve, who served as an education adviser to former Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis.

As Mr. Dukakis' adviser, he recalled, "I had to fight to get the press and politicians to pay attention to education."

"I would have been thrilled to have an environment like this," he said.

Vol. 18, Issue 6, Pages 16, 18

Published in Print: October 7, 1998, as Education Takes Center Stage in Mass. Race
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