Education Reform: Ten Years after the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993
In June 1993, Governor William Weld signed into law the Massachusetts Education Reform Act (MERA). MERA greatly increased the state role both in funding public education and in guiding the local educational process. The state’s role changed to incorporate setting curriculum frameworks and holding schools accountable for student performance. Because MERA was designed to be a systemic reform of education, all of the various state activities and policies needed to fit together into a coherent whole based on state educational standards. This comprehensive set of reforms included the following elements. Increased State Funding for Public Education. MERA doubled state funding of K–12 education from $1.3 billion in 1993 to $2.6 billion in 2000. The achievement of this ambitious target has been a major accomplishment. A “Foundation Budget” for All Districts. MERA laid out the concept of a minimum budget necessary for each district to adequately educate all of its students. Poorer communities that were spending below foundation-budget levels would receive more than those at or above that threshold. By 2002, all districts were at or above foundation level. Revision of the foundation formula to more fully reflect actual spending needs is under consideration. Learning Standards. The legislation instructed the Board of Education to develop curriculum frameworks and other standards such as vocational standards, and to support local districts’ implementation of standards through alignment of curriculum and instruction. Frameworks have been developed in arts, English language arts, foreign languages, health, mathematics, history/social science, and science/technology/ engineering. Student Assessment. MERA required an assessment of student learning based on the frameworks and specified a competency determination as a requirement for graduation. The Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) has been developed and implemented for those purposes. MCAS tests have been administered in multiple grades in English language arts, mathematics, reading, science/technology/engineering, and history/social science. Students in the class of 2003 and beyond must perform at least at the “Needs Improvement” level in English language arts and mathematics to graduate. An Accountability System for School and District Performance. MERA required the state to hold schools and districts accountable for student performance and to provide remedies for persistent underperformance. This has proven to be quite a challenge for the state, with several changes of jurisdiction occurring. Over the past year, a “performance index” process has been developed based on MCAS scores and has been judged to be in compliance with the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Changes in Local Education Governance and Management. MERA included significant changes in the way schools and districts are run. School Committees’ power over personnel issues was reduced, with superintendents and principals given more authority. All schools were to have School Councils composed of parents, teachers, students, and administrators. Enhancing Educator Quality. A portion of state aid to local districts was earmarked for teacher professional development. Teacher licensure has been revised, and teacher tests for new teachers have been instituted. Ensuring Readiness to Learn Through Early Childhood Education Programs. Between 1996 and 1999, spending on early childhood education increased by 247 percent. Implementing Choice and Charter Schools. MERA expanded inter-district choice and authorized the state to approve charter schools—public schools exempt from local control and union contracts.
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