October 2018 Column: Grassroots Education Advocacy Organizations Needed
This week brings the annual Amherst Education Foundation Trivia Bee, traditionally hosted by the State Rep, raising both passion and funds for our local public schools. It is quintessentially Amherst – diverse, energetic, and all about celebrating education. I’ve reflected a lot on this spirit of valuing education so highly. It pervades Massachusetts, though not always as strongly as in our area. Each year the legislature votes increases to various forms of state aid to public schools. It is taken for granted among Reps, regardless of district or party, that education is of crucial importance to our state. Thanks to this spirit, and to a 1993 law which guaranteed school districts a minimum funding level known as the “foundation budget” and which began the era of MCAS, Massachusetts ranks number one among U.S. states for K-12 test scores. Unfortunately, we seem to assume this means we have done “enough,” and recent proposals that would improve our children’s learning have been relegated to the back burner. We are far from a perfect education system. Significant gaps persist in graduation rates and in other metrics between black, Latino, and low-income students and their white or higher-income peers. Poorer school districts cannot spend nearly as much as wealthier ones, despite state funding – this further exacerbates disparities. Rural schools struggle with unique issues, including the logistics and cost of transportation and the limits sparse enrollment places on a varied curriculum and elective offerings. Perhaps most crucially, teachers (and administrators) have their hands tied by national and state regulations that inhibit their creativity and effectiveness. Our star teachers still fight to give students good learning experiences, but it has been harder and harder. However our test results compare to those of other states, we have a long way to go before every child is given a meaningful and enjoyable education that equips them for a productive life. There is no shortage of ideas to address these issues: groups of superintendents, the association of school committees, two teacher unions, and the department of elementary and secondary education itself are teeming with proposals. Yet beyond these institutional players, which are comprised of professionals within the system, there exist surprisingly few organizations dedicated to education policy advocacy. Most non-institutional organizations that do any education advocacy with the legislature are focused on charter schools – an important topic to further address in Massachusetts, but only one piece of a much larger set of problems. There is one budget think tank that promotes crucial ideas about education funding. Beyond that, efforts are either local, such as AEF, or one-time initiatives spearheaded by legislators, such as the work of Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz. This session Sen. Chang-Diaz prioritized implementing recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission. The 2015 FBRC report suggested tweaks to the 1993 funding formula to give significant additional money to our schools. The report is almost universally agreed-upon, and a simple starting point for the next round of education improvement in Massachusetts. Yet, unlike the 2017 report that helped catalyze a criminal justice reform bill passed later that year, the FBRC report has sat around since 2015 with only the institutional advocates and a few dedicated legislators making any serious efforts to implement its recommendations. This speaks of a surprising and important reality in Massachusetts: there really isn’t a statewide grassroots advocacy organization on K-12 education. On criminal justice reform there are many, and they collaborated quite effectively to get their topic on the agenda last year. On environmental issues, there are so many that there exist coalitions of coalitions of them. Healthcare has it, higher education has it, but K-12 education is lacking a non-institutional grassroots advocacy organization in Massachusetts. This is surprising because Massachusetts does generally value education among our top priorities. And it is significant, because while the legislature has been in a policymaking lull in recent years, the few big laws that have been passed – most notably criminal justice reform, paid family and medical leave, and a higher minimum wage – have been almost entirely the result of massive grassroots organizing. Nothing big gets on the agenda in the current Massachusetts legislature without strong outside pressure, and that pressure has to extend beyond the unions and associations that live every day in our education system. Large-scale public pressure, press attention, and repeated constituent lobbying are needed to get the FBRC recommendations and other needed education improvements onto the agenda and over the finish line. With our historic leadership and local-scale model in AEF, why not start here?