Mass. Teachers Association: Invest in — and reclaim — state's public schools, higher ed

For years, the spring budget debate throughout Massachusetts was about how we could make do with less, how we had to pare back our visions for our children’s education, from our cities’ and towns’ schools to our commonwealth’s public colleges and universities.

But the once-in-a-century victory we and our 115,000 members helped win by passing the Fair Share Amendment has moved us away from that crippling austerity narrative. On Election Day, we won greater tax fairness. We won $2 billion a year for public schools, colleges and transportation. We broadened our political imaginations about the kind of public schools and colleges our communities deserve.

A quarter century of underfunding public higher education has undermined the mission of offering a high-quality, debt-free higher education for everyone. Students and their families now shoulder most of the burden of paying for public higher education, racking up debt faster than in almost any other state in the nation. Community colleges, already underpaying their full-time staff and faculty, have had to exploit adjunct faculty. They are the gig workers of higher ed, who have no job security, no health insurance and no pension benefits. Our campus buildings, once built by the state, are now paid for through student fees, further adding to the debt burden.

We need to pass the Cherish Act, which would make public college debt-free, while providing the support that students need to finish college on time, assuring fair pay for staff and faculty and encouraging development of green and healthy campus buildings. More than 80% of the public endorse these priorities, according to a recent poll.

We also need to invest more in pre-K-12 public schools. The landmark Student Opportunity Act we helped craft and campaign for was passed unanimously in late 2019. But only months later we were hit with the COVID-19 pandemic.

We all know that the needs of our students have only grown since then – increasing demand for mental health care, counselors, nurses and librarians. Let’s fully fund the Student Opportunity Act, as legislative leaders and Gov. Maura Healey have promised. Let’s also confront the ongoing effects of the pandemic. Let’s incentivize districts to provide paid family and medical leave for public municipal employees — something that is guaranteed to every other worker in the commonwealth. Let’s provide subsidies to encourage cities and towns to build on what several of our locals — including Malden, Woburn and Haverhill — recently have won: living wages for paraprofessionals.

As we continue our investments in public schools and start a transformative investment in public colleges and universities, we need to reclaim the fundamental purpose of our public schools.

It is time to end the punitive and destructive use of high-stakes testing. The money that flowed into public schools was the central reason for the enormous gains our students have made over the past 30 years. State standards were important too, and we support them. But the high-stakes MCAS, which devours weeks of the school year — and which has narrowed school curricula — has sent over 50,000 students out into the world without a high school diploma. Its value is primarily as a measure of family income. It is time to shrink the MCAS to the diagnostic test it was meant to be and eliminate its use as a graduation requirement.

While we’re at it, let’s put an end to the disastrous experiment in state receivership. Each of the state’s districts controlled by receivers — Lawrence for 11 years, Holyoke for eight, and Southbridge for five — has seen no real progress, even by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s own measurements. What receivership has accomplished is to destabilize districts, sending educators fleeing. Southbridge, as an example, has a 50% turnover in educators every year.

Let’s instead engage in a serious discussion about how we can assess our schools’ performance using a full range of goals that will nurture and educate the whole child, developing resilient, creative adults who are prepared to contribute to society at work, at home and in civic life.

All of this can be achieved with the Thrive Act, which is overwhelmingly supported by the public. It would bring an end to receivership and high-stakes testing as a graduation requirement, promise a renewed focus on supporting districts that are struggling, and create a commission to build a whole-child assessment system that matches the needs of the 21st century.

Massachusetts has sought for nearly four centuries to be, as John Winthrop sermonized in 1630, “as a city upon a hill.” And indeed, when it comes to education, “the eyes of all people are upon us.”

Max Page is president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association; Deb McCarthy is the group's vice president.

This article originally appeared on Telegram & Gazette: Massachusetts Teachers Association leaders urge public school revamp