Quality public schools need not cost Bay State taxpayers a lot more

Massachusetts public schools, collectively, are neither the best nor the worst in the United States. The state has some topnotch school systems and some that are in trouble.

But the quality of public education in the Bay State is uneven, and the response to that problem by the state government has never been adequate. Although it would not be correct to say the welfare of elementary and secondary schoolchildren has been ignored by the legislature, it is clear that no coherent , sustained program of state assistance to local public schools has been maintained.

Now laudable, though somewhat flawed, public education reform legislation has been filed in an attempt to improve schools across the commonwealth.

The worst aspect of the measure sponsored by State Rep. James G. Collins (D) of Amherst and other lawmakers is that it is considerably more costly than what Massachusetts taxpayers can afford.

Much of the estimated $300 million to $566 million in increased spending would go for higher pay for teachers and school administrators, including a mandatory minimum entrance-level salary of $18,000. While a strong case can be made for providing school personnel with decent compensation, this might be more properly left to the collective-bargaining process rather than cast in statutory cement.

State lawmakers for too long have dabbled in the questionable practice of setting minimum pay for municipal employees, often with little or no regard for how such gestures of Beacon Hill generosity affect local budgets. And, in the past, promised state aid to meet state-imposed financial burdens has usually seemed somehow to fall short.

Past experience also shows that higher salaries do not of themselves ensure better teaching. Obviously, a major thrust of any public education improvement effort should be to see to it that teachers throughout the state are both well-qualified and highly competent.

Despite strong opposition from within teacher union ranks, periodic examinations to disclose whether teachers are up to date on their subject matter , as well as classroom performance reviews, make good sense. A majority of the members of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, to their credit, recognized this in voting just such a competency-assurance provision into the legislation.

It is difficult to see why any professionally minded teacher would have qualms about being tested and evaluated. Of course, the fairness of such a process would have to be carefully safeguarded.

The goal of improved public education in Massachusetts also might be well served by the institution of some type of a merit pay system for the better teachers and administrators - something that is consciously absent from the current measure, perhaps because teacher unions want no part of such an arrangement.

Why not provide extra pay or some other incentive for those who excel and who thus contribute more than others to the quality of education in their school system?

Those who suggest that higher salaries alone will result in better students in the Bay State, might take a look at neighboring New Hampshire, where teacher pay is sometimes substantially lower and yet overall pupil achievement test scores are generally higher.

Clearly the caliber of public schools varies widely in Massachusetts. In many instances more funds would help improve those lagging behind. With some school systems, however, the problem is not just the need for more money. It is largely a matter of misplaced priorities and insensitivity to shortcomings in their programs.

The adverse revenue-raising impact of Proposition 21/2 has affected school systems, but public education generally seems to have fared better under the tax-limitation law than other areas of local government responsibility. Per-pupil spending statewide has actually increased over the past four years, during which total public school enrollment has been on the decline.

This latter trend has made possible smaller class sizes, with resultant improved student achievement scores in many communities.

Local control of public schools must remain inviolate. But that does not mean state minimum standards should not be set. Such standards are needed to make sure that every public school pupil in Massachusetts is properly prepared for college or direct entry into the increasingly demanding job market.

One of the strengths of the pending legislation is provision for such an arrangement, with the State Board of Education responsible for certification of school systems. Where deficiencies were found, the local school board would be compelled to use any additional funding from the state to satisfy minimum requirements. This would help ensure at least near-equal educational opportunities for all public school students, no matter where they live.

Another particularly attractive feature of the legislation would make high school diplomas more meaningful by requiring that pupils meet certain performance standards. Massachusetts public schools for too long have been turning out a large number of less-than-proficient graduates.

Improved curriculum and higher standards for diplomas need not cost all that much. But, regardless of the price tag, it is a potential bargain the state cannot afford to overlook.

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