Ending MCAS graduation hurdle could land on state ballot

  • Massachusetts Teachers Association President Max Page said his group is compiling polling data ahead of the Aug. 2 deadline to file paperwork for 2024 ballot questions. STAFF FILE PHOTO

State House News Service
Published: 7/10/2023 3:33:07 PM
Modified: 7/10/2023 3:32:46 PM

BOSTON — Massachusetts voters could be asked to settle two major education debates in 2024, but retailers may pass on bringing tax cuts to next year’s ballot.

The state’s largest teachers union is considering ballot questions that would eliminate the graduation requirement associated with statewide standardized testing and create a debt-free college scholarship program — proposals that legislative leaders have hesitated to embrace.

Max Page, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said the group is compiling polling data ahead of the Aug. 2 deadline to file paperwork for 2024 ballot questions. The union commissioned a poll by Echo Cove Research in June that shows support for the two potential measures.

Debt-free education

Of the 800 registered voters polled, 81% said they would vote “yes” on a ballot measure “ensuring that every person who lives in Massachusetts who has graduated from a state high school and wishes to pursue higher education has access to an adequately funded, debt-free education at any public college or university.”

The union has long backed legislation to create a debt-free college scholarship program to support low-income students. The bill was filed by Sen. Jo Comerford and Reps. Sean Garballey and Patricia Duffy (S 816 / H 1260). It has not emerged for a hearing before the Committee on Higher Education.

A report by the Hildreth Institute published last year found that student costs at the state’s public colleges and universities increased at one of the fastest rates in the nation, with tuition and fees rising by 52% since 2000, during a time when median household earnings have climbed only 13%.

Though there are other aspects of the Cherish Act, such as ensuring eligibility for state health care and retirement benefits for adjunct faculty and part-time staff, the union only polled residents on the student funding component.

“On the heels of the U.S. Supreme Court’s abysmal decision to gut affirmative action, it’s more important than ever that we stand up for fair and equal access to public higher education in Massachusetts,” Page said. “Residents want and need access to high quality, debt-free public higher education. Our young people should not have to go into massive debt or come from wealthy backgrounds to pursue the degrees that are required for so many jobs.”

Standardized testing

On another teachers union priority, 73% of the voters who were polled June 2-11 said they would support eliminating the graduation requirement tied to the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS. The union has called the test a “punitive, high-stakes, rank-and-shame accountability system.”

The Massachusetts Teachers Association has long opposed the exams that were created in a 1993 education reform law aimed at improving accountability and school performance. The first tests were given in 1998, and high school students have been required to pass the tests to graduate since 2003.

Massachusetts is one of only eight states that still ties a standardized test to a high school graduation requirement, according to the union.

Supporters of the exams say they provide valuable data on school performance and achievement gaps that can then be targeted with funding and interventions, while opponents say the MCAS causes unnecessary stress for students, takes away class time and school resources to teach “test taking” skills, and doesn’t provide useful feedback for teachers.

If the graduation requirement were eliminated, according to the union, schools would be required to certify students for graduation on other state standard requirements.

The poll asked just about eliminating the graduation requirement, not about scrapping the tests altogether.

Meanwhile, 80% of poll respondents said they would support a ballot measure requiring the state to establish a commission to create a new form of standardized assessment to replace the MCAS.

With less than a month until the first filing deadline all ballot question campaigns must meet, the field of 2024 initiative petitions remains murky.

Other possible measures

The Retailers Association of Massachusetts, which has twice filed ballot questions — most recently to decrease the sales tax — does not seem poised to file a measure for November 2024, despite polling residents on tax cuts.

The group asked voters if they would support rolling back the sales tax from 6.25% to 5%, which had been the sales tax rate up until the 2009 recession. Eighty-six percent of respondents said they would vote “yes,” according to the retailers association.

On reducing the income tax from 5% to 4%, 79% of voters the retailers polled said they would vote for the decrease.

Despite the broad support, Retailers Association President Jon Hurst said the ballot questions may not be necessary, as he is “confident” that leaders on Beacon Hill will make good on promises to provide tax relief for residents “within the next few weeks.”

Other groups that have signaled an interest in putting questions before voters have not solidified their plans. The influential Raise Up Massachusetts coalition, which led the successful 2022 campaign for the “millionaires’ tax” surtax on high earners, still has not made a final decision on whether to press ahead with efforts it floated months ago to further amend that new tax law or once again increase the minimum wage.

“Raise Up Massachusetts is working to increase the minimum wage because the low-wage workers who make our economy work need higher wages to keep up with record-breaking inflation, deal with the high cost of living in Massachusetts and rise out of poverty,” Raise Up spokesperson Andrew Farnitano said in a statement. “Our coalition of community organizations, faith-based groups and labor unions is still actively considering all options to win an increase in the minimum wage, including legislative pathways and a potential 2024 ballot initiative.”

Twelve initiative petition measures had been filed as of last week, according to Attorney General Andrea Campbell’s office. Seven of those failed to pass constitutional muster, the AG’s office ruled in September when Maura Healey still held that title, including a proposal to limit contributions to independent expenditure PACs (political action committees).

The Supreme Judicial Court in May dismissed a challenge opposing Healey’s decision not to certify the question, saying the case was “moot” because supporters failed to collect enough signatures to advance the measure.

Five potential ballot questions are listed as certified on the AG’s website, including a proposal that would expand credits and rebates for the purchase of electric vehicles and other clean home energy systems. Officials also certified a proposed constitutional amendment that would limit collection and sharing of data, including location tracking, images and voice audio, by both state government and private companies.


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