Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, politically in debt to the teachers’ unions, is attempting to eviscerate his state’s successful school reforms and its independent board of education. His drive to ensure that No Teacher-Union Hack Is Left Behind has serious implications for public-school choice nationally. Can Democrats who are committed to school reform summon the political will to sustain it in the face of union opposition?
Patrick’s chief target is charter schools, which the unions oppose because charters offer parents an alternative to underperforming district schools. When children switch to charters, public funds follow them — and the political clout of the unions diminishes, since charter-school teachers are not unionized. Of course, the unions express their objections differently: charters starve public schools of needed resources; skim the best students; and divert public support from a system that works.
Not many people believe the unions’ criticisms, so it’s been an uphill battle to block the spread of public-school choice. In state after state, charter schools are growing in popularity — often with the support of top Democrats, as Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform
, has pointed out. Governor Eliot Spitzer has doubled the number of New York charters to 200. Chicago mayor Richard Daley has thrown his weight behind a privately funded $4.2-million math-and-science charter school. Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is trying to establish 25 new charter schools in Detroit. Indianapolis mayor Bart Peterson campaigned on a promise to bring charter schools to the nation’s 12th-largest city and authorized 16 new charters in 2006. D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty hopes to increase the number of charters in the nation’s capital beyond the 57 that already exist. And New Orleans is building new intellectual levies in the form of charter schools.
While Democrats were relative latecomers to the charter-school movement — after all, teachers’ unions didn’t like them — they have come around, mainly because the schools are so popular with parents. So why is Governor Patrick headed in the opposite direction?
There is a passage in Moby Dick, where Ishmael, at the helm of the Pequod, becomes entranced by watching the nighttime fire beneath the kettles of whale blubber — and nearly capsizes the ship. He finds a lesson in the experience: “Look not too long in the face of fire, O Man. Never dream with thy hand at the helm.”
I don’t know what bubbling kettles Governor Patrick has been watching, but he certainly seems to be asleep at the wheel. Why would an initially popular governor run full-tilt against education reforms that have been both enormously successful and enormously popular? He just has. Moreover, some of his fellow Democrats, like Joe Williams, worry that Governor Patrick isn’t alone. Williams points out that Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, another recipient of teacher-union support, has temporized on charter schools, and the Massachusetts legislature (more or less a Democratic satrapy) is “heavily influenced by the teachers’ unions and contains only a handful of vocal charter supporters.”
It wasn’t always so. In 1993, Massachusetts led the national drive for ambitious school-reform legislation — pushed through by Democrats like Tom Birmingham and Mark Roosevelt and signed into law by then-governor William Weld. That reform increased state funding for public schools by about $40 billion, but also imposed strict accountability. It charged the state board of education with creating content tests, called MCAS exams, which were the forerunner of the accountability tests that are central to President Bush’s No Child Left Behind. The board was also asked to develop new curricular frameworks and a charter-school program. To keep everyone honest, the legislature created an independent Office of Educational Quality and Accountability that ran performance audits of school districts.
It worked. In 2005, Massachusetts became the first state to achieve top marks in all four categories of student achievement measured by the federal government. But Massachusetts school reform does have one lingering weakness. The achievement gap between white and minority students persists. The only tool that has consistently lessened the gap has been charter schools — and as their success became more apparent, the union opposition to them grew fiercer.
One of Governor Patrick’s first steps was to eliminate the Office of Educational Quality and Accountability. The unions hated it because it did its work: it audited school districts and reported when they came up short. Moreover, it spotlighted the cases where districts’ shortcomings stemmed from ignoring the law, cooking the data, or misallocating funds.
Having ditched the auditors, Governor Patrick next moved to install a union-vetted candidate with a record of hostility towards charter schools as his new Department of Education commissioner. The Boston Globe and every other major paper in the state editorialized against the governor’s candidate and the job went instead to a well-qualified out-of-stater who supports district accountability and value-added assessments for teachers.