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MCAS ballot question pits Massachusetts Teachers Association against business community — again

The showdown could result in a legislative compromise — or another expensive electoral battle.

By Jon Chesto, Globe Staff, Updated February 27, 2024, 9:58 a.m.

MCAS ballot question pits Massachusetts Teachers Association against business community — again

The Massachusetts Teachers Association held a press conference touting the 135,000 signatures gathered in support of a ballot question that aims to remove the high school graduation requirement tied to high-stakes MCAS testing and afterward brought them to the State House on the last day of acceptance, Dec. 6. DAVID L. RYAN / GLOBE STAFF

Greater Boston’s business community raised more than $14 million to fight the millionaires tax. A princely sum, but no match for the $28 million-plus that the teachers’ unions and their allies spent on their way to victory.

Now, the two sides are squaring off again, in another high-profile ballot battle.

This time, the focus isn’t on an income tax surcharge for the state’s highest earners to raise money for transportation and education. It’s on the fate of the poorest performing high school students — and whether passing the state’s MCAS test should remain a requirement for graduation.

The big spending in advance of the November election hasn’t really started yet. As of Dec. 31, the first campaign finance filing deadline in this election cycle, the Massachusetts Teachers Association said it spent about $500,000 on a signature-gathering firm and reported another $600,000 of in-kind services provided by union staff to support the MCAS ballot question.

Meanwhile, the business community only formed a ballot committee in January — so we have no idea how much the opponents have spent so far. And we probably won’t know until the next deadline rolls around in September. But we do know this: Many players in the ring for this latest fight will be the same ones who battled two years ago over the millionaires tax, including Greater Boston Chamber chief executive Jim Rooney and Massachusetts High Technology Council chief executive Chris Anderson.

Consider this Round Two between these warring sides. Or maybe even Round Three, if you include the charter school question that the union beat in 2016.

Chief among the similarities between 2022 and 2024: the business community’s refrain of “economic competitiveness.” In 2022, business advocates tossed around that phrase out of concern that many wealthy residents would head for the exits, carrying their employment and philanthropic dollars with them. This time, it means something different. Removing the MCAS standard as a diploma requirement, business leaders say, would harm one of the state’s biggest selling points: its strong public education system — considered crucial to attracting and retaining talent as well as preparing our future workforce.

The business community, motivated by skills gaps in the workforce, was a driving force behind the 1993 Education Reform Act, largely through the then-new Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education. The reform law promoted a continuous improvement strategy, one that eventually relied on MCAS to measure progress, while providing an infusion of cash for school districts. Teachers as a group were never big MCAS fans, but opposition escalated roughly a decade ago as student test scores became increasingly linked to evaluating teacher performance, said MBAE cofounder Paul Reville, a Harvard education professor and former state education secretary.

Ed Lambert, MBAE’s current executive director, notes that eliminating the standardized test requirement for a diploma would undermine the state’s competitiveness by creating a “Wild West scenario” in which school districts create their own definitions for educational success, rather than the statewide MCAS standard in place for the past two decades.

Nonsense, says MTA president Max Page. He argues the state already has high instructional standards for the schools — test or no test — and teachers are in the best position to assess kids’ performance. Page called the high-stakes test a “blunt instrument” undermining the educational system, in part by chasing away good teachers and narrowing the curriculum. He wouldn’t say how much money the union could end up investing — other than that it’s prepared to spend whatever it takes to win.

Certainly, the MTA was willing to spend whatever it took in 2022, when it deployed $11 million on the millionaires tax during the campaign’s final six weeks, on top of $4 million it spent earlier in the year. The National Education Association helped by donating millions more.

That said, the dynamics could still be quite different this year. For one, there’s some talk of a potential legislative compromise on the MCAS issue. While it’s hard to envision what that would look like, a Beacon Hill-brokered compromise — should one come to fruition this spring — would head the ballot question off at the pass. That couldn’t have happened with the millionaires tax because it was a constitutional amendment, requiring a statewide vote.

Maybe hope for a legislative compromise has dampened the early spending this time. But when Lambert, Rooney, Anderson, and their allies do start shaking the trees for donations, the optics will be better than in 2022. A donation to this fight looks like a gift with the intent of helping kids, as opposed to what some could portray as a self-interested move to avoid higher income taxes.

Another variable that didn’t exist last time: the high-profile teachers’ strike in Newton that went on for 11 school days, engendering sympathy and sparking criticism. How much of that public reaction carries over to this ballot fight remains to be seen.

Then there’s the issue of grassroots support. The teachers’ unions had plenty in 2022 because Raise Up Massachusetts — a coalition of community, religious, and labor groups — drove the millionaires tax. Page says he expects parents to support the teachers’ cause this time; a frustrated Lexington mom had started work on a similar MCAS ballot question before joining with the MTA.

Many parents are lining up on the other side. National Parents Union president Keri Rodrigues, a former labor organizer who lives in Woburn, says her group has a presence in 22 cities and towns in Massachusetts and can get its message to more than 250,000 families to vote against the union’s MCAS question. Her group will put that network to work, she said, to protect a test that she argues ensures all public school students are taught skills they need to thrive, regardless of where they live, and alerts the grown-ups overseeing the schools to any gaps that need addressing.

Barring a legislative compromise, the MCAS question could easily turn into yet another big-budget ballot battle. How much each side is willing to spend remains unclear, especially since neither wants to talk specific numbers. The Massachusetts teachers union had $16 million in cash as of June 30, 2022, according to the most recent public information available, but that was before giving millions to the millionaires tax cause. Even if the national organization doesn’t show up this time, Page has made it clear his union is willing to commit big bucks to this fight.

Will the teachers union outfox the business suits again? It’s hard to know: A UMass Amherst poll from last fall shows roughly 50 percent in favor of the MCAS question, 30 percent opposed, and 20 percent undecided. That makes the race a tossup for political prognosticators. However, one thing seems certain: Victory won’t come cheap.

Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him @jonchesto.