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April 24, 2016

(LA Johnson/NPR)

Imagine this: Not that long ago, in the 1970s and ‘80s, Massachusetts’ public schools were considered mediocre by many standards. Today, the state’s school system ranks among the best in the world.

What happened?

Magic.

So said Republican Governor William Weld, in 1993, after he signed a landmark effort to overhaul how the state pays for its schools.

“Of all the gifts within our purview, a good education in a safe environment is the magic wand that brings opportunity,” Weld said. “It’s up to us to make sure that wand is waved over every cradle.”

To do that, Massachusetts poured state money into districts that educated lots of low-income kids, many of which also struggled to raise funds through local property taxes. This windfall allowed poorer districts to hire and keep good teachers, give them better training and improve curriculum in the classroom.

For 36 years, Karen English has been teaching in Revere, a town just north of Boston where nearly 80 percent of students are low-income. (Kirk Carapezza/WGBH)

“I really think that the funding was like winning the World Series,” says Karen English, a teacher of 36 years in Revere, a town just north of Boston where nearly 80 percent of students are low-income. “Everybody embraced [the extra funding], and just to have the curriculum and the books and the space made you wanna be here.”

For roughly a decade, from 1993 to 2003, Revere’s school budget increased by some $5 million a year. Former Revere superintendent Paul Dakin says those steady funding increases didn’t just support teachers but also new classes and standards.

“There wasn’t a calculus course the year I came here,” Dakin says. “So we redid the graduation requirements and, over the years, moved to the point where honors programs and calculus courses and A.P. courses were and are still plentiful.”

“We noticed the difference right away,” says Revere’s current superintendent Dianne Kelly. Back in 1993, Kelly was teaching high school algebra.

“We adopted a whole new textbook series in the math department,” Kelly recalls. “The first year I was here, the textbooks I was using with my students dated – no exaggeration – back to the ‘50s and ‘60s.”

Revere schools also used the money to hire reading coaches and a technology team. Some schools even lengthened the school day.

And with these changes, student test scores and graduation rates slowly improved. Today, the district says nearly 90 percent of its high school graduates go on to some form of post-secondary education -- up from 70 percent before Weld’s magic wand moment.

“When you look at Massachusetts’ overall performance nationally, we have gone from the middle of the pack to the top of the pack,” says Paul Reville, a former state education secretary who now teaches at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

Reville, though, says it’s important to remember that while education may be a magic wand, money isn’t.

“For every dollar you add, you’re not necessarily going to see an increase in improved output,” Reville insists. “It depends how you spend the money. As we look around the Commonwealth, some places have spent money wisely, and other people have wasted the opportunity.”

Related: Amid State Funding Cuts, Public Research Universities Find Unlikely Advocate

In Revere, the money mattered. But, since the Great Recession, state funding has slowed. Now, former superintendent Dakin says Revere is, once again, facing lean times. Some state lawmakers want to change how the state counts a district’s low-income students. That would further cut funding to Revere, and the district says it would need to begin layoffs.

“Think of it as fertilizer,” Dakin says. “We were fertilizing the field with money. And when that fertilizer dries up, the progress is going to dry up.”

 

>> This story is part of the NPR reporting project “School Money,” a nationwide collaboration between NPR’s Ed Team and 20 member station reporters exploring how states pay for their public schools and why many are failing to meet the needs of their most vulnerable students.

increasing access and success, higher ed

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