^ signing ceremony at Boston English High School, the state’s first public school (1635)

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More than a year after the so-called “Promise Act” was proposed, for the future funding of public schools in Massachusetts, the much-amended version of that proposal is now law. Governor Baker signed the “Student Opportunity Act” at the beginning of this week.

The legislature voted unanimously to enact the version signed by Governor Baker.

So the big first question : what is in this massive spending bill ? And can it do the trick — close the so-called achievement gap” between students of color and students Caucasian and Asian ? Masslive’s report lists the main points :

And the second question : how did we get to unanimity ? We arrived there by incorporating into the bill ( a ) performance standards and monitoring of them ( b ) school districts have three years to come up with their plan for using the funds wisely and ( c ) full implementation must occur by year 2026. The original bill insisted on a five-year implementation.

Can this law work ? Despite the performance standards imposed, the gist of the bill is still money. The first object of that money is to close funding shortfalls between local school budgets and local school needs. The problem is that no matter how much money is accorded, school bureaucracies always find more budget needs to fund. The Student Opportunity Act revises the State’s school funding reimbursement formula, yes: all charter schools funding consequences will now be funded, special needs students’ transportation costs will be covered, and in general, poor-performing school districts will receive disproportionate funding help. If money alone can improve the performance of students in poor-performing districts, this bill will do the trick.

I am not so sure, however. The achievement gap is not merely a matter of money, maybe not even mostly. Students who don’t speak English at home need language immersion schooling at school. Homeless students need beds, meals, and security. Students who live in dysfunctional family situations need focus and repose, confidence and mentoring. In school, discipline needs to be rigorous : school cannot be a place for fooling around or “being oneself.” In my view, too much of today’s public school management emphasizes identity rather than rigor and diversity rather than uniformity. All students must master basic reading, arithmetic, and language use skills before they can graduate to specialization. Lots of money, by itself, will do nothing to change classroom facts.

That said, our political situation admits only of euphemism and easy ways out when public education is the topic. Powerful vested interests guard every gateway into how schools are actually managed and operated. Being a unanimous law, the Student Opportunity Act has the approval of every such vested interest, which means that nothing fundamental is likely to change. Unless the elimination of money worries, for the time being, can somehow induce stronger classroom morale. We will see if that happens.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere