MASSACHUSETTS’ 68TH GOVERNOR, Bill Weld, might be the only state executive in a century who dreams in ancient languages and can effortlessly connect lessons from 5th-century B.C. Greek historians with modern K-12 education policy.
In paraphrasing Thucydides’ masterpiece, History of the Peloponnesian War, Weld described why he, Tom Birmingham, and Mark Roosevelt — architects of the landmark 1993 Massachusetts Education Reform Act — undertook this work: They wanted to create “a possession for always.”
This month marks the 25th anniversary of passage of the reform law, which has been the most successful state-driven enterprise of our time. On its path to educational excellence, the Bay State developed America’s best academic standards, student and teacher tests, and vocational-technical and charter public schools.
Under the education reform law’s “grand bargain” of highly progressive state funding in exchange for broad-based accountability, the Commonwealth has topped the National Assessment of Educational Progress, “the nation’s report card,” consistently since 2005. Massachusetts is also the only state that is internationally competitive in math and science.
As we celebrate these historic accomplishments, people should remember Gov. Weld’s extraordinary K-12 education leadership. Much of his farsightedness can be traced to three fundamentals that are in short supply these days.
The first is that Weld was a classics major who delivered the Latin oration at his Harvard commencement and later wrote two puckish novels. The uniqueness of Weld, a Republican, and his Democratic education law co-authors was their understanding that a traditional liberal arts education, grounded in enduring literature, poetry, drama, and history, is crucial to civic life in a democracy.
In contrast, special-interest edu-babble and Washington, DC, trade group-think make many policymakers believe school reform can be reduced to some vacuous combination of education or business school jargon, pop psychology, and meaningless platitudes about workforce development.
Most governors simply punt on education reform, preferring the Beltway’s top-down templates, which predictably deliver mediocre results for their states. The Commonwealth’s home-grown, academically focused reforms bucked decades of soul-killing DC fads that have nearly ruined American K-12 education.
Weld’s second chief virtue was his almost neo-classical vision of disinterested public service. He routinely staked out major, often unpopular policies that unapologetically put the interests of schoolchildren ahead of deference to the education establishment.
For example, in the 1993 law’s early years, state educrats repeatedly tried revolt-of-the-clerks tactics to subvert the law’s intent. When these flaky functionaries promulgated draft English standards that included Ebonics, Weld and legislative leaders responded by radically overhauling the state education governance structure to hold the bureaucrats accountable.
“[To] rattle the cushy coach the education monopoly has been riding in far too long,” was the rationale Weld offered for these 1995 changes. He appointed his former gubernatorial rival and firebrand Boston University president, John Silber, to chair the state Board of Education.
Just as Weld had planned, Silber fed misbehaving state educrats bucketsful of cod liver oil. It was Weld’s tough-minded board appointees who redirected the policy conversations on standards, testing, accountability, and charter schools.
The final characteristic that made Bill Weld the outstanding K-12 education reform governor of our era was his deep commitment to equal opportunity through private-school choice and charter schools.
While many political leaders offer hollow rhetoric about bringing excellence to failing urban districts while quietly sending their own kids to elite prep schools, Weld spent considerable political capital to expand school-choice options.
Despite the Massachusetts Constitution having the nation’s oldest and worst anti-aid amendments, Gov. Weld joined state Senate President William Bulger’s valiant attempt to repeal bigoted legal barriers that block private-school choice.
Though they lost that fight, Weld quickly became the nation’s most pro-charter school governor. While consistently advocating for more charters to serve urban kids, he gloried in the well-orchestrated boos from teacher union activists at State House hearings. It was the Weld administration’s resolve that helped the Commonwealth develop charter schools that are unmatched at closing achievement gaps.
The vices and virtues of human nature are on full display in Thucydides’ description of the 27-year Peloponnesian War, which pitted Greek against Greek and authoritarian Sparta against democratic Athens. Could Bill Weld’s example be any more instructive when it comes to the leadership and education policy battles required to make Massachusetts’ schools among the best in the world?