State's fiscal realities may cloud education funding

Swift promises aid is forthcoming

MARLBORO—Gov. Jane M. Swift told Massachusetts school superintendents yesterday her commitment to funding public education is stronger than ever, even though the state is facing fiscal challenges.

She said the $26 billion the state has invested in public education since 1993, when the Education Reform Act was implemented, has made all the difference in classrooms across the commonwealth.

”We’ve seen that when we have high expectations of our students, and we’re willing to back that up with significant public investment, our kids will rise and have risen to the occasion,” the governor said. As an example, she cited improvements in Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test scores after the state spent millions of dollars on remedial programs. ”We will continue that commitment even in tough economic times.”

Ms. Swift and David P. Driscoll, state education commissioner, were keynote speakers at the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents’ midwinter meeting held at the Royal Plaza Hotel.

Ms. Swift told the superintendents they and their principals and teachers have come a long way in meeting the challenge of providing every child with an opportunity for excellent education. She said the accomplishments toward achieving the promise of the Education Reform Act is the reason President Bush selected Massachusetts as one of the three states he visited last week to celebrate the passage of the national education reform bill.

”Massachusetts is seen as a national model of the right way to drive educational reform so that it results in educational excellence for children,” she said.

The need for workable distribution formulas for Chapter 70 and special education funds and an upcoming bill aimed at overhauling the state’s bilingual system were highlighted by the governor. The bill she plans to file next week would eliminate the current ”one-size-fits-all approach” to bilingual education and replace it with more flexibility for districts and families.

She said the MCAS test has highlighted the lack of success for students with limited English language proficiency. Forty percent of students who didn’t take the MCAS are students with limited English skills, she said. And less than a third of the students in the class of 2003 who have limited English-speaking abilities passed the MCAS.

”We know that what we’re doing now isn’t working. It might be working for some kids, but it’s certainly not working for at least 70 percent of the kids,” Ms. Swift said.

She called on educators to reform and update the bilingual education system to ward off a ballot initiative that would replace the current system with a one-year English immersion program.

The ”Unz Initiative,” is named for Ron Unz, a California businessman who is financing the effort. State Sen. Guy W. Glodis, D-Worcester, is a strong supporter.

Ms. Swift said the Unz initiative is a ”sledgehammer” that is out there ”because we’ve been failing kids.”

”And, if we don’t correct the system ourselves by creating flexibility and choices for teachers so they can put in place, with an enhanced role for parents, better programs that better meet the needs of those with limited English language proficiency, then there is going to be change, and it’s going to be much more dramatic. It’s going to be much less flexible,” the governor warned.

Hudson Superintendent Sheldon H. Berman, president-elect of the superintendents association, praised the governor for her commitment to education in general and to revamping the out-dated bilingual system. Hudson has a large percentage of Portuguese-speaking students. Mr. Berman said unless the Legislature does something, voters will respond by passing the Unz Initiative, which he called a ”very heavy-handed approach.”

”Special education has gone through dramatic changes since the 1970s. Where once we had segregated programs, inclusion is now the priority,” Mr. Berman said. ”I think we’ve learned a lot in bilingual education as well. The law needs to reflect what works in bilingual education and it doesn’t.”

Mr. Berman said he missed his opportunity to ask the governor whether her budget will provide funding for the ”circuit breaker” program, a new special education reimbursement program scheduled to be implemented in fiscal 2003. The program almost doubles state aid for high-cost special education placements. Some state officials think the program might be only partially funded next year or even delayed because of the budget crunch.

Robert E. Melican, superintendent of the Northboro-Southboro Regional School District, and vice president of the association, said he is anxious to see how much additional Chapter 70 aid the governor will have in her budget next week.

”She does have a strong commitment toward education. We need to see that play out in the budget process,” Mr. Melican said. ”I hope she maintains that commitment because next year cities and towns will have problems with their finances. Any additional monies that can come in the governor’s budget is important for all of us.”

John Petrin, assistant superintendent in Marlboro, said he was impressed with the governor’s commitment to and depth of knowledge about the public school system. But, he’s concerned about the political shenanigans that are sometimes played out, particularly during an election year.

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