Jim Peyser. Photo: Alyssa Haywoode for Strategies for Children
Jim Peyser. Photo: Alyssa Haywoode for Strategies for Children

How do you make progress in education reform? By tackling the tough question of how to pay for it.

This was the topic yesterday at the Union Club in downtown Boston where the Building on What Works Coalition hosted a panel discussion called “Financing Education Reform: The Next Chapter.”

“Time is of the essence in making progress,” Tripp Jones said, welcoming the audience of nearly 150 people. “We felt it was important to say, look, there are communities ready to move,” on education reform. They just need access to funding.

Jones is a board member and the co-founder of the nonprofit think tank MassINC, which is part of the Building on What Works Coalition along with Massachusetts 2020, the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, and Strategies for Children. 

The coalition is calling on the Legislature to create a $75 million fund to invest in school districts that want to make one or more changes by expanding access to high-quality early learning programs; expanding K-12 learning time; or “designing innovative learning systems to creatively deploy educator talent, technology, and public resources.”

The coalition recently released a white paper — “A Call to Action in 2015” — that notes:

“With new technologies steadily automating and outsourcing jobs, experts predict the divide that marks our Commonwealth’s new economic landscape will become more difficult to cross.”

However: “The remedy is building education systems that ensure all residents are able to develop the skills required by 21st-century industries.”

Opening Remarks

It’s a good time to talk about financing education, according to Massachusetts Education Secretary Jim Peyser, who gave the opening remarks. Peyser noted that the state has a new governor, a new Senate president, and a new president of the University of Massachusetts. In addition, policymakers are expecting a list of recommendations from the Foundation Budget Review Commission, which is reviewing the state’s Chapter 70 school finance law.

“We’ll be forced to make tough choices and tradeoffs,” Peyser said, but he added that Massachusetts can do a better, more holistic job of aligning early education, K-12, and higher education — and of thinking about funding across all three sectors.

Peyser called on the state to rethink it’s approach to teaching and learning, growing beyond century-old educational models and embracing technology, which has only barely touched the way the state educates young people.

Peyser also said that state grant programs that “do good” for targeted groups aren’t sufficient. He called instead for large scale, sustainable change. “Doing good is not good enough.”

Break down educational silos, Peyser said, look for new opportunities to link the education system and the workplace, streamline the regulatory burden, and value results over compliance.

The Panelists 

“High-quality early education needs to become part and parcel of what we consider our public education system,” State Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz said. She echoed Peyser’s call for better integration across the educational spectrum.

Figuring out how to pay for it is a challenge, she said. And she quoted her favorite Republican, her grandfather, who said he had voted for tax increases to support schools because “education doesn’t cost, it pays.”

“We do have limited resources,” State Representative Alice Peisch said, so the state has to “look and see when are the dollars producing good outcomes,” by studying school districts that perform well in challenging environments with “relatively modest dollars.”

Offering a local perspective, Salem Mayor Kimberley Driscoll said that her city and other Gateway Cities have to “educate children for the future,” teaching them the specialized skills they’ll need.

Driscoll said diversity makes her city great — and creates the educational challenge of meeting children’s widely different needs. Driscoll is excited about having the chance to innovate and about being held accountable for progress. She made a request, asking lawmakers to set more reasonable time frames that allow city and school leaders to implement and maintain change.

“You can’t mandate change. You have to inspire excellence,” Ed Moscovitch said. He’s a member of the Foundation Budget Review Commission who also helped develop this state’s 1993 Education Reform Law.

Moscovitch pointed to two key educational assets: children and teachers. Children, including those from low-income backgrounds, he said, are capable of far more than anyone realizes. And most teachers can teach at levels that could bring substantial, positive changes to schools. To accomplish this, schools need strong leadership; data to drive instruction; differentiated instruction; and high expectations.

Invest in districts that are ready to innovate, Moscovitch said, publicize their work, and inspire others to follow suit. He argued that state spending of $50 million per year for ten years to improve teaching could have major benefits.

School Superintendent Meg Mayo-Brown of Fall River said that in her city only 50 percent of children attend pre-K programs. And you can see the difference in whether children recognize letters and know letter sounds. That gap has to be closed by teachers, and they have to do it fast.

“We have to accelerate to close the gap,” the superintendent says. Typical learning speeds aren’t enough to prepare children to become proficient third grade readers.

Expanding learning time has also fueled progress in Fall River Schools.

Moving Ahead 

“It’s going to require a lot of push from constituencies outside the building [the State House] to encourage and force us to do something bold,” Senator Chang-Diaz said of winning new investments in education, adding that the state faces a $1.8 billion budget deficit.

Education is also competing against transportation for funding, Representative Peisch added. But she explained that the recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission could spur action. She also called for more access to high-quality early education for children who need special education programs.

Change the conversation from stale debates about policy and politics to a more engaging approach of showing what children can do, Moscovitch advised.

We need to recruit, support, and grow teachers, Mayor Driscoll said.

Mayo-Brown praised “friendly competition” among school districts, saying she’s chasing Revere to achieve that city’s educational successes.

“I would encourage people in this room to remain engaged and not give up,” Peisch said. Let go of what might be your initial thought on some of these proposals, she added, and consider what might not be ideal, but could still make progress. “I encourage people to come to these things with an open mind.”