How Massachusetts Became The Best State In Education

Apr 26, 2016
Originally published on May 4, 2016 4:10 pm

It was 1993 when Massachusetts Gov. William Weld declared: "A good education in a safe environment is the magic wand that brings opportunity." The Republican was signing into law a landmark overhaul of the state's school funding system. "It's up to us to make sure that wand is waved over every cradle," he added.

With that, Massachusetts poured state money into districts that educated lots of low-income kids, many of which also struggled to raise funds through local property taxes.

"We noticed the difference right away," says Dianne Kelly, the current superintendent of Revere Public Schools, north of Boston, where nearly 80 percent of students come from low-income families. There, much of the new money was spent on people: to hire and keep good teachers and give them better training.

And it wasn't just Revere.

To read all about it, and what happened next, click here.

The story of funding success in Revere is part of the NPR reporting project School Money, a nationwide collaboration between NPR's Ed Team and 20 member station reporters exploring how states pay for their public schools and why many are failing to meet the needs of their most vulnerable students. Join the conversation on Twitter by using #SchoolMoney.

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LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Massachusetts used to have mediocre public schools. But that's changed. Now it has some of the world's best. Kirk Carapezza from member station WGBH in Boston tells us why.

KIRK CARAPEZZA, BYLINE: In 1993, Republican Governor William Weld signed into law a landmark effort to overhaul how the state pays for its public schools.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAM WELD: A good education in a safe environment is the magic wand that brings opportunity. It's up to us to make sure that wand is waved over every cradle.

CARAPEZZA: What Massachusetts did was give more state money to districts that educated lots of low-income kids.

KAREN ENGLISH: So what are some of the things that might help us here as researchers, as scientists?

CARAPEZZA: This windfall of state dollars allowed poor districts to hire and keep good teachers, give them better training and improve curriculum in the classroom.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: What is it made out of? It could, like, be useful to some of, like, the future products.

ENGLISH: Future products, good.

CARAPEZZA: In Revere, just north of Boston, nearly 80 percent of students are low-income. And over time, the state's investment paid off.

ENGLISH: I really think that the funding was like winning the World Series.

CARAPEZZA: Karen English grew up in Revere. And she's been teaching in its schools for the past 36 years. She remembers that extra state money. It did a lot.

ENGLISH: Everybody just embraced it. And just to have the curriculum and the books and the space - And we have some beautiful new schools. And it just all makes you want to be here.

CARAPEZZA: For roughly a decade, from 1993 to 2003, Revere's school budget increased by about four to $6 million a year.

PAUL DAKIN: There wasn't a calculus course the year I came here.

CARAPEZZA: Former Revere superintendent Paul Dakin says those steady funding increases didn't just support teachers, but also new classes and standards.

DAKIN: So we re-did the graduation requirements. And over the years, moved to the point where honors programs and calculus courses and AP courses were and are still plentiful.

DIANNE KELLY: We noticed a difference right away.

CARAPEZZA: That's Revere's current superintendent Dianne Kelly. In 1993, she was teaching high school algebra.

KELLY: We adopted a whole new textbook series in the math department. And I can tell you that the first year I was here, the textbooks I was using with my students dated, no exaggeration, back to the '50s and '60s.

CARAPEZZA: Revere schools also used the money to hire reading coaches, a technology team. Some even lengthened the school day. And with these many changes, student test scores and graduation rates went up. Today, the district says nearly 90 percent of Revere's high school graduates go on to some form of postsecondary education. That's up from 70 percent in the early '90s.

PAUL REVILLE: When you look at Massachusetts' overall performance nationally, we have gone from the middle of the pack to the top of the pack.

CARAPEZZA: Paul Reville is a former state education secretary and now teaches at Harvard's Graduate School of Education. He says it's important to remember that education may be a magic wand. But money isn't.

REVILLE: It depends how you spend the money. And to be sure, as we look around the Commonwealth, some places have spent money wisely, and other people have wasted the opportunity.

CARAPEZZA: Since the recession, state funding has slowed down. And now former superintendent Paul Dakin says Revere is facing a budget shortfall.

DAKIN: Think of it as fertilizer. We were fertilizing, you know, the field with money. And when that fertilizer dries up, the progress is going to dry up.

CARAPEZZA: The state is also proposing changes to the way it calculates the number of low-income kids districts educate. That would decrease funding in Revere. And the district says it would need to begin layoffs. For NPR News, I'm Kirk Carapezza in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.