Massachusetts State School Board Loses Independence





By: Sandra Stotsky – October, 2010

In November 2006, Governor Romney appointed me to the nine-member Massachusetts Board of Education. In January 2008, the Legislature passed Gov. Deval Patrick’s bill establishing a cabinet-level secretary of education position and expanding the board to eleven members. The bill specifically shortened my term, but three-and-a-half years were enough to discern the effects of the 2008 changes.

In 2003, in testimony against the creation of a similar cabinet-level education position, Paul Reville, then director of the Center for Education Research and Policy at MassINC, warned that an education secretariat…seems to create “three masters” for the commissioner of education: the governor, the secretary of education, and the board of education.

How wrong he was. The secretary position, to which Gov. Patrick appointed Reville, did not create confusion. It instead created one boss for the commissioner: the secretary, who oversees the budgets and policies of the three state education agencies. The secretary is also a voting member of the boards of early education and care, elementary and secondary education, and higher education.

The expansion of the K-12 board included in the 2008 law was the key to minimizing independent thinking because it altered the terms of existing members and allowed Patrick to make appointments that gave him immediate control of the board.

To avert potential power struggles between a new secretary and the board chair (whom the governor already had the power to appoint), Gov. Patrick appointed someone who could make meetings run on time but was without political ambitions. Indeed, Reville’s position at board meetings came to symbolize his role; Commissioner Mitchell Chester was sandwiched between him and the chair, Maura Banta, at the head table. The board’s union representative was on the other side of Banta. Not much wiggle room for the commissioner.

The first clear sign that the governor’s office, not the board, was the commissioner’s boss was Chester’s 2008 appointment of former Lowell Superintendent Karla Baehr as a second deputy commissioner. Baehr was the Patrick administration’s choice for commissioner when the board for other reasons chose Chester.

Since spring 2008, the board has voted on few significant policies. Indeed, when asked to note for the 2009 summer retreat what important decisions they had made in the previous year, hardly anyone could think of one. Meeting agendas have largely been determined by the secretary and commissioner, with no board input desired. At the 2008 summer retreat, Secretary Reville told the board directly that meetings would be too long if every topic members wanted discussed was added to the agenda.

Because administration control of the board was so complete, policy discussion was minimal. Reville didn’t need to ask many questions; Banta usually asked none.

Even when the board finally did consider a significant issue – whether to adopt still-evolving national standards – there was little discussion. Board members knew they would vote to adopt them no matter what condition they were in. The draft copy of the standards included in an appendix of the commonwealth’s January application for federal funds was so inferior it had to be completely revised before it could be released for public comment. The chair was the only board member who saw that application before it was sent, and no questions were raised about it after my request for a copy and hard copies were then sent to all board members.

With Patrick’s June 2010 decision not to reappoint Tom Fortmann and me, the two remaining Romney appointees, the board has become little more than a facade to satisfy the statute requiring a citizen board to oversee the department of education.

The ostensible results of the 2008 legislation have been exactly as intended – complete control of the state’s educational agenda by the Executive Office of Education, with minimal public discussion.

By appointing a board with a strong commitment to the governor but little understanding of K-12 education, the administration has prevented not just the public but its own officials from learning about flaws in their policies. The next bill for that hubris comes due when Massachusetts begins to implement the inferior national standards and high school students deemed “college-ready” by state tests based on those standards fail their college courses.

Sandra Stotsky is 21st Century Chair in Teacher Quality in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas and a former member of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.