An early observance of the 25th anniversary of the 1993 Education Reform Act brought a host of familiar names to the State House: Weld, Reville, Driscoll, Antonucci, Birmingham. The gathering provided space both to celebrate the successes of the past decades as well as look ahead to what needed to be done.
In her introduction of Senate President Harriette Chandler, Representative Alice Peisch noted both were members of their local school committees at the time of the law's passage and mentioned her own skepticism at the local level at the time. Chandler noted both the "incredible growth in our educational resources" and the "immense inequity across the Commonwealth's schools, especially in urban districts like mine." She noted the central role of schools as a "cornerstone of life, social justice, and the pursuit of happiness."
In speaking of his own role in the law's passage, former Governor William Weld spoke of reading of the vast inequities of resources among school districts, saying that he "allowed to have clawed out of me" that he would support an increase in funding, while at the same time requiring a tie to state accountability measures. "Too often, people didn't seem to care," he said, if "kids in difficulty, minority places were learning anything." Weld spoke of charter schools as a solution to the inequities mentioned earlier.
Governor Baker recognized the "number of people who had to step up and think differently about what they did...is literally in the tens of thousands." In his travels around the state, he hears, he said, "how much people appreciate the quality of our schools, the quality of our people, the quality of our students." This is important, he said, in a world "in which ideas become opportunities."
Before swearing in the new Commissioner, Governor Baker noted that what he most admires about Jeff Riley is he creates bridges and collaborative spaces. He said he couldn't think of "someone more qualified based on his heart and his experience...and I am truly honored to have him" serve as Commissioner.
Former Senate President Thomas Birmingham said he still could remember "that stifling hot day" when Weld signed the bill into law at the Holmes School in Malden. Before 1993, he said, "we recognized the grossest disparities in our public schools." It was, he said, "fraudulent" to say we were providing equality in education. Birmingham commented at some length on his support for charter schools, for the traditional MCAS, for Massachusetts standards. He commented that funding has been "relatively flat over a decade," and we are "heading back to pre-1993 funding disparities."
Former Commissioner Robert Antonucci noted it as the first time a sustained educational initiative passed that would be lasting. In introducing a reflective video of Jami McDuffy Milnamow, Rep. Peisch said, "it is unlikely the law would have passed" were it not for the lawsuit.
Former Secretary Paul Reville moderated a panel on lessons learned from the past decades and ways forward. Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz said that we should not forget or understate "the law has bettered the lives of millions of children." Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents Tom Scott said we "have to acknowledge" that resources have not kept up, that we must go back and "review and go back to the basics of the formula itself." Former MTA President Paul Toner recalled his time as a Cambridge teacher with fifteen schools having different standards and noted the importance of a united set of standards.
When asked what was needed going forward, former Commissioner David Driscoll said, "Number one: money...let me be clear: we need to raise taxes. We need to raise revenue." He also spoke of the unmet need for early childhood education. Senator Chang-Diaz noted the wide support for the bill which would implement the recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission, saying there is "a critical mass of understanding and investment and buy-in there, still." Toner agreed with the resource issue, commenting that the fatigue and challenges from teaching come from the varieties of needs children have and teachers lacking the resources with which to meet them. Scott noted the "tight bind" on superintendents around expectations and the politics of a modern superintendency. Shannah Varron of Boston Collegiate Charter School referenced the "rich data" we have of what works and spoke of supporting expansion of that.
In closing the panel, Reville said as we still see the "iron law association between economic advantage and educational attainment," "schools can't go it alone."
Secretary James Peyser said our success comes down to "one thing, and that's people." He recognized outgoing Acting Commissioner Jeff Wulfson, who received a sustained ovation, and asked the teachers in the room to stand to be recognized.
Closing the celebration remarks, Commissioner Jeff Riley said that the 1993 act was "a blueprint put in place [that] catapulted us" to the top in many ways." In moving ahead, "we need to bring all voices back to the table." "We have an ethical and moral responsibility to do better," he said. "And we must."
Revere eighth grader Priscila Haro closed the day with her spoken word piece: