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Best Minds Must Meet in the Middle

Apr 11, 2012 | Lowell Sun

When Gov. Deval Patrick and his top educational officials first proposed reforming the state’s community college system, they knew they’d be in for a battle.

The 15 community college presidents, including Carole Cowan of Middlesex Community College, have stridently criticized the plan and marshaled local forces, including Beacon Hill lawmakers, to say “no” to the changes.

Cowan argues Middlesex is doing a good job on its own, without the state poking its nose into the business of educating urban students and training workers for jobs that fuel the local economy.

To a large extent Cowan is correct. Middlesex is often held up as the standard by which all other community colleges are evaluated. Chris Anderson of the Massachusetts High Technology Council and a strong advocate for Patrick’s proposal, emphasized the point in a letter to The Sun. Reforms are not an attack on the colleges, said Anderson in a separate Sun interview, but a call to unify the colleges’ educational mission and leverage their combined resources for the best possible outcomes.

We agree with both Cowan and Anderson.

Community colleges should retain local control over the hiring of staff, the programs they choose to offer the public, and the manner in which it spends its state-funded resources.

The state, however, should command the right to hold colleges accountable for the funding they receive, based on measurable, performance driven data. And if a college is

failing to meet its goals, the state must have the authority to step in and demand changes — just like it does with the public elementary and secondary school system.
Paul Reville, the state’s Education secretary, said college presidents and the Patrick administration have to find a “middle ground.” We agree.

College presidents and their boards of trustees chafe over the notion of losing local control over decision-making to a state board in Boston. More bureaucracy from a state centralized chain of command would do more harm than good, they say, especially when designing worker programs aimed at meeting the needs of local businesses in the medical, technological and environmental fields.

They make a good point. For example, when local hospitals and health centers lack for nurses and/or medical technicians, Middlesex has answered by tailoring programs to meet those needs without getting state approval to do so. High-tech manufacturing is another sector where community colleges have responded when local businesses require specially trained workers.

Unfortunately, not all the colleges respond as urgently or as positively as others. This is a major problem for a state that is falling short on educating young people with technical skills essential to the new global economy. Without a skilled workforce, businesses will bypass Massachusetts for the states that are meeting those needs.

Beacon Hill lawmakers are quick to take the side of their local community college, especially when so much of the staff is part of their own constituency. But this issue deserves a broader look because a lot is at stake here. Community colleges don’t need political protection; they need a push to greater excellence. The outcomes must be recorded, held up for public inspection and used to justify annual state funding. Colleges that deliver outstanding performance should get more funding — and that’s what Patrick’s plan would do.

Lawmakers would be doing taxpayers and students an injustice by giving the governor’s proposal short shrift. Certainly state government doesn’t need to grow more powerful at the expense of community-college autonomy, but it should become smarter in managing its educational assets.

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