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June 6, 2008

Fearing for Massachusetts School Reform

via a kind reader's email - David A. Mittell, Jr., a fascinating look at the political sausage making and special interests behind, or blocking school "reform":

THE (Deval) PATRICK administration is big on reform when it comes to organizational charts, which in the to and fro of politics are accidents of history; are aesthetically displeasing to social scientists; and more often than not downright inefficient. It is the last point that deserves attention. The Patrick administration seems partly inhabited by people concerned with the second point and partly by people impatient for more power to do what they want by direct administrative order, rather than having to cajole semi-autonomous boards and authorities.

Mitt Romney had plans along the same lines and was pleased with himself when, early in his term, he was able to persuade the legislature to eliminate the notoriously inefficient Metropolitan District Commission and transfer its functions to the Department of Conservation and Recreation. How much actual efficiency was achieved is debatable.

Mr. Romney also tried to eliminate the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority. As a Republican governor he had no chance of eradicating this termites' nest, despite its many public failings. Thereafter, wisely, he resolved to do what he could with the rusty tools that hehad. The danger of persisting in trying to clean up the flow chart in the face of political opposition was that, even had he succeeded to some extent, he would have spent his whole term doing it. Redirectin the mission of state government would have been lost.

With more than a third of his own term gone by, Mr. Patrick faces the same conundrum. He too wants to put the Turnpike Authority and all other transportation-related agencies under his direct control. That will need a column of its own. Here I want to deal with his partly completed effort to put all education-related agencies under his control.

Critics, especially those concerned about the foundering success of the Education Reform Act of 1993, see an attempt by the governor to gut the aspects of education reform that his political supporters in the education establishment do not like. On a partial list of suspected "gutters" are assorted state bureaucrats, the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents and the Massachusetts Teachers' Association.

That's not my list and I do not endorse it. But the evidence to date is that the critics have the politics right. Not only does Governor Patrick seem to be moving to quash some of the most hopeful aspects of education reform, appointed minions are acting on his behalf in petty and vindictive ways:

On Feb.12, the legislature approved exhuming the corpse of a cabinet-level secretariat of education, which, with good reason, Gov. William Weld had persuaded the legislature to bury in 1996. The old education secretariat -- created with the idea of giving the governor clear line-authority to get things done -- had become a static extra layer of bureaucracy that got in the way of getting things done. The "corpse," which had only been alternately hibernating and estivating for 12 years, has been resuscitated with the same noble words about "action" that were spoken at its first founding.

On Jan. 17, after a long search, the Board of Education approved Mitchell Chester to be commissioner, succeeding the retired David Driscoll. He was chosen over two other finalists, including Karla Baehr, who was the clear favorite of education insiders. Later, on March 10, by an executive order, Governor Patrick stripped the Board of Education of its 170-year-old independence -- dating to its founder, Horace Mann -- and put it under the authority of the resuscitated education secretariat. He also enlarged its membership, packing it with his own people.

Unlike the Turnpike Authority, the Board of Education was not made up of "termites." Its members were distinguished gubernatorial appointees of both parties and different points of view. If ever there was a board that didn't need the bureaucratic shuffle dance, this was it.

From the beginning, activists from the Patrick gubernatorial campaign seemed to have it in for the Office of Educational Quality and Accountability. Created in 2001, operating on a $2.97 million budget, EQA served as an independent monitor of the progress of public schools spending almost $9 billion a year in state and local funds. Last year it was phased out in the budget and is currently in limbo. On April 11, its director, Joseph Rappa, was asked to leave a meeting of the governor's Educational Management Audit Council so it could go into executive session. A majority of three Patrick-appointed members then voted to fire him.

Mr. Rappa's contract was expiring anyway, and he was perfectly prepared to move on without in any way embarrassing the governor. But on April 16, as he was cleaning out his Ashburton Place office, in Boston, the governor's Education Advisers Office got into the act. Sydney Asbury and Michele Norman of that office had two State Police troopers eyeball Mr. Rappa as he cleaned out his desk, and then escort him out of the building. Thanks to these two goons (the bureaucrats, not the troopers), the public is assured that Mr. Rappa did not take any of the people's pencils.

On May 6, U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings came to Boston to mark National Charter Schools Week and visit the successful Edward Brooke Charter School, in Roslindale, founded in 2002 and named after the former Republican senator from Massachusetts. Governor Patrick could not fit her into his schedule and did not attend a meeting with top state education officials chaired by Paul Reville, the incoming secretary of the no-longer hibernating cabinet-level Department of Education.

In an hour-long roundtable discussion the term "charter schools" did not come up, despite their being the reason for Secretary Spellings's visit to Boston. Nor did Secretary-designate Reville see fit to call on Commissioner-designate Mitchell Chester, who was on a telephone hook-up. It appears likely that this capable outsider is going to be shunned by the embittered friends of Karla Baehr.

So it goes. These are political games, and I here use the words child and student for the first time in this column. For their better being we must fear.

David A. Mittell Jr. is a member of The Journal's editorial board.

Posted by Jim Zellmer at June 6, 2008 9:30 AM
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