Former Senate President Tom Birmingham, who passed away last week at age 73, will be remembered in many ways. Loving husband, father, loyal friend. A Chelsea boy who became a Rhodes Scholar. A principled pol who never forgot where he came from.
But his greatest public legacy – the 1993 education reform bill that pumped long-overdue funding into the public schools, imposed much-needed oversight and accountability with the MCAS test, and offered kids stuck in chronically-failing schools a way out through charter schools – may not always be remembered, because it may not survive.
The money will keep on flowing. Say what you will about the greed and anti-reformism of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, their political skill at wrangling ever-growing revenue streams out of the state and the taxpayers is unmatched.
But Birmingham, ed reform co-architect Mark Roosevelt and then-Gov. Bill Weld understood that money alone wouldn’t boost academic performance and narrow the disgraceful achievement gap between mostly-white suburban schools and urban, mostly non-white classrooms. MCAS provided the state’s first really detailed road map to where the failing teachers and schools were, the better to allocate resources and push for change. Charters offered thoughtful teachers and administrators an alternative to schools where grotesque union rules, backward management and lazy, racist social-promotion policies stifled creativity and progress.
It worked. Test scores rose across the board; by 2005 Massachusetts fourth- and eighth-graders led the nation in reading and math, and the racial gap was narrowing.
But no good deed goes unpunished. Birmingham told the sorry story in a 2020 op-ed piece for the Berkshire Eagle:
“Despite unprecedented success, state leaders have now been chipping away at education reform for over a decade. An independent agency that performed comprehensive evaluations of state school districts was eliminated. In 2010, the commonwealth swapped out academic standards in English and math that were national models for weaker ones known as Common Core. Subsequently, watered-down science and history standards were also adopted. Add that to voters’ rejection of a ballot initiative that would have allowed more of the state’s best-in-the nation charter schools, and the results aren’t surprising. SAT scores are well below their 2006 peak. The percentage of students scoring advanced or proficient on the MCAS third grade reading test — the best predictor of future academic success — fell 10 points from 2002 to 2013.”
The pandemic has made matters worse. And after pouring millions into a successful push for a graduated income tax, reactionary, far-left MTA leadership is feeling its oats, demanding an end to MCAS and the right to strike even as union chief Max Page proudly-but-insanely denounces the system’s “focus on income, on college and career readiness.”
Meanwhile, more than 17,000 students are on waiting lists to get into charter schools. The sorry coalition of dishonest union leaders perpetuating debunked lies about charters – with help from gullible suburbanites who proved in the 2016 election they cared more about the size of chicken cages than the future of poor children – has made sure they’re going nowhere. And Gov. Maura Healey, warmly embraced by the MTA during her campaign, failed to even mention charters in her remarks on Birmingham’s passing.
May Tom Birmingham’s memory be a blessing. But it’s even more important that his work live on.
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