• All aboard

    CommonWealth magazine
    Sen. Steven Baddour, the co-chair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation, was ticked off. The five members of the new Massachusetts Department of Transportation board of directors had been invited to appear before a November oversight hearing called by the committee. Only one showed up. The Methuen Democrat made it clear he wasn’t happy. “I wish more of them were here this morning, so I could say this to their faces,” he said. The committee rescheduled the group for a December hearing. But less than 24 hours before that session was slated to begin, again only one board member had agreed to appear, leading frustrated lawmakers to postpone the hearing yet again.

    The MassDOT board of directors is now the public face of transportation reform in the Bay State. Board members’ reluctance to show their faces early on to lawmakers who are anxious to discuss transportation issues made for an inauspicious start. The recent board no-shows at legislative hearings no doubt had something to do with the chilly reception some board members would have received.

    Expectations for the new department, a merger of nearly all the state’s transportation-related agencies, are running high. Worn-out roads, decrepit bridges, and almost daily snafus on bus, subway, and train routes have commuters at their wit’s end. Deferred maintenance and repairs are prompting big concerns about safety, especially at the debt-riddled MBTA. And Massachusetts doesn’t have enough money to deal with any of it.

  • Affordable housing

    CommonWealth magazine

    Bowdoin Place, with its red brick and concrete façade and dark wood trim, sits in understated elegance at the back of Beacon Hill in the shadow of the State House. Some condominiums there are assessed for more than $1 million, and two-bedroom, two-bath apartments rent for $5,000 a month.

    But not everyone who lives there is wealthy. Like all residential developments built in the city since 2000, Bowdoin Place was required to set aside a percentage of its units as affordable housing under an executive order issued by Mayor Thomas Menino and administered by the Boston Redevelopment Authority. The goal was to make room — even in luxury-residence buildings — for middle income and upper middle income Bostonians who couldn’t otherwise buy into the American dream. At Bowdoin Place, that meant 19 condos that normally would sell for $500,000 to $750,000 went for less than half that amount through a lottery open to anyone who met the BRA’s income guidelines.

  • Youth populations drop 1.2M in Northeast, Midwest

    “It’s certainly an indicator of some concern because robust economics need a diverse workforce,” says John Schneider, executive vice president of MassINC, a public policy group in Boston. “We here certainly have been raising alarm bells about the declining population of our young adults for … years.”

     

    The number of children in Massachusetts has fallen almost 5% since 2000, but the declines are not happening in all parts of the state. “The Greater Boston region can compete anywhere in the world for jobs, innovation, productivity,” Schneider says, “but there are huge areas of New England that have not been able to diversify and are struggling to connect with new economic opportunities.”

  • Housing policies leave cities behind

    Housing policies leave cities behind

    By Benjamin Forman

    For decades, building affordable housing has been the “fix” for declining neighborhoods in the state’s older industrial cities.  But shoring up distressed blocks with affordable housing has done little to make these neighborhoods attractive again.  If anything, it’s probably had the unintended effect of concentrating more poor families in areas where jobs have become increasingly scarce. 

    Because  housing resources are severely limited, state housing policy has focused on ensuring people have a roof over their heads.  The prioritization of affordable housing is correct.  But it does not explain the reluctance to recognize the limitations of affordable housing development in communities with declining neighborhoods, and the need for another pool of resources to address the unique challenges cities with these conditions face.

  • State’s Mill cities need smart investing

    Mill cities need smart investing

    Mayors from the state’s older mill cities converged on Beacon Hill last week to advocate for a reform bill. 

    At a time when all communities are grappling with tight budgets, this may seem like just another call for more money in disguise.  But these leaders are supporting innovative ideas that could provide real economic stimulus. 

  • Grade the Teachers

    A good teacher equals a good school year. Not always, but far more often than not. Ask any parents of an elementary-grade child how the school year is going, and it won’t be long before you’ll hear them rave about – or bemoan – the teacher their child has been assigned to. There are teachers who are duds, who can find a way to drain the fun out of a unit on dinosaurs for second-graders. And there are  those with a gift for reaching the eighth-grader slouched in the back of the classroom with a penchant for eye rolling. These teachers can bring life to Poe’s fascination with the dead, or deliver just the right contemporary analogy to make sense of the War of 1812.

  • Term paper trafficking

    CommonWealth magazine

    Despite laws in Massachusetts and 16 other states, lawsuits, honor codes, and even sophisticated plagiarism-detection software, college students continue to buy term papers and other academic material from individuals and companies that have built a thriving business out of cheating.

    Websites with names like Papergeeks.com, 15000papers.com, Schoolsucks.com, and echeat.com advertise easy access to recycled and “customized” term papers with catchy slogans like “Download Your Workload” and “It’s Not Cheating, It’s Collaborating.”

  • Teacher Test

    CommonWealth magazine

    In 1966, the federal government released a seminal report titled Equality of Educational Opportunity. Written by James Coleman, a prominent sociologist, the report attempted to get at the various influences on student performance in American schools. The study, widely known simply as the Coleman Report, concluded that “only a small part of [student achievement] is the result of school factors, in contrast to family background differences between communities.”

  • State of the unions

    CommonWealth magazine
    ”Governor Patrick, Anti-Labor.” ”Governor Patrick, Anti-Public Safety.” That was the 411 from Arlington and Medford police officers lined up more than 200 strong in front of Arlington’s Town Hall in late June. There wasn’t any chanting or marching, just plenty of signs doing the talking on a damp and chilly evening. The reason behind the impressive turnout wasn’t much of a mystery. Already ballistic over the governor’s support for replacing uniformed police with civilian flaggers on some road construction details, municipal police officers were facing a second hit to their wallets, losing pay increases for pursuing degrees in criminal justice under the so-called Quinn Bill.

  • Missed opportunity – CommonWealth Magazine

    CommonWealth magazine

    In the wake of the indictments of former state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson and former House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi, a State House under siege by a fed-up public recently fashioned the first major ethics reform in 30 years. The legislation increased penalties for ethics violations and corruption, severely limited lobbyist activities, clamped down on gifts and freebies for lawmakers, and increased the enforcement powers of the secretary of state, the attorney general, and the State Ethics Commission.

  • Public Records – CommonWealth Magazine

    A law designed to shine a bright light on the inner workings of state and local government in Massachusetts is instead leaving much of the bureaucracy in shadows, if not total darkness.

  • Career Change – CommonWealth Magazine

    Three years ago, Dan Ladd of Lincoln closed up a real estate law practice and went back to school. Faced with a slow business climate and a desire for a skill he could take overseas, the former lawyer is now in training to be a veterinary technician.

  • T Steps Up Concrete-tie Inspections

    MBTA officials are stepping up inspections and ordering commuter rail engineers to throttle back for safety in areas where the railroad tracks are held down by crumbling concrete ties.

    It is the latest problem with defective ties along two of the Old Colony commuter rail lines south of Boston. About 11,000 people ride the trains into Boston from Middleboro and Kingston every weekday.

  • Rail Fix Plan on Track

    The MBTA said Monday its plan is on track to close the commuter rail line between Bridgewater and Middleboro starting Wednesday to replace deteriorated rail ties.

    MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said the agency will run replacement buses between the Middleboro and Bridgewater stations of the Old Colony rail line to Boston. The inbound buses will be leaving 20 minutes ahead of the scheduled train departure times.

  • City Says Red Sox Must End Open Bar

    City regulators say they plan to order the Boston Red Sox to stop offering an open bar as part of a $1,000-and-up packages for some of Fenway Park’s most coveted seats.

    Daniel F. Pokaski, chairman of the Boston Licensing Board, said the team will be told to “cease and desist” the practice but apparently will not face further sanctions, unlike other bars and restaurants that have temporarily lost their licenses for similar infractions of the state’s 25-year ban on happy hours and open bars.

  • Menino’s long ride

    CommonWealth magazine

    On a Wednesday morning in May, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino throws a neighborhood party in a small South End park. It’s a sparkling, lilac-scented day, the kind that makes Bostonians feel good about the decision not to decamp to one of those Southwestern cities with great weather and $100,000 homes. Everyone is smiling — at the sun, at the toddlers scooting around the jungle gym, at the City Hall workers serving up free Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and pastries. Women with strollers mingle with retirees and youth workers. Neighbors talk about planting radishes.

    As the mayor steps out of his black Chevy Tahoe, in the first of many stops that day, he causes only a slight stir in most of the park’s corners. One woman wants a picture of him with her babies. A man with a shock of white hair buttonholes him to discuss efforts to spruce up an overgrown city park. “Oh, yeah,” says Menino. “You wrote me a letter.”

  • Getting to yes

    CommonWealth magazine

    Plan ahead, people! That’s the mantra Greg Bialecki, the state’s secretary of housing and economic development, drums into his audiences when he goes on the road to talk about zoning reform. For nearly two years, he’s crisscrossed the state telling local officials that they’re not doing enough to plan where homes, schools, shops, and industrial plants get built — a lack of coordination that is hindering the state’s ability to attract jobs, build affordable homes, and keep residents from fleeing to more affordable climes.

    “There hasn’t been a lot of thought and planning as to where things are going,” the secretary says. “So the experience of people all over Massachusetts has been [that] what gets built seems almost random to them.”

  • Back tracking

    CommonWealth magazine

    Stephen Wiles leaves his New Bedford home at about 6:15 each weekday morning to drive to Middleborough to catch the commuter train to Boston. He’s been riding the rail five days a week for about five years, so he knows the route and its bumps and sways well. Lately, he’s noticed some jarring patches on the stretch near the Middleborough-Bridgewater town line.

    “It’s quite rough,” says Wiles, one of the 10,000 riders on the MBTA’s Old Colony lines every day. “One evening in particular it was quite bumpy.”

  • School reform snubs students

    School ‘reform’ snubs students

    At the event sponsored by the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth (MassINC), Reville previewed parts of a Patrick administration legislative package.  It will include raising the cap on charter schools under certain circumstances and the mechanics for creating Readiness Schools, the centerpiece of the governor’s action agenda for education.

    The proposals suffer from the adult-centric incrementalism that has marked so many establishment attempts at reform. 

    Reville said reform’s slow pace is not due to lack of leadership on Beacon Hill, but failure to achieve consensus on issues like charter schools.  He doesn’t grasp that leadership is the precursor to consensus.

  • Charter schools important but only part of the solution

    Education consultant Jeff Howard on Thursday compared those fixated on the promise of charter schools to a homeowner convinced his house is cold because the furnace is broken. The homeowner spends a small fortune on a new furnace but still doesn’t get any heat. Only then does he realize the problem was an empty oil tank.

    News that Gov. Deval Patrick supports lifting the cap on charter schools in the state’s worst performing districts is a good sign that he sees their value in closing the achievement gap between students who are poor and those who are not. But the focus on this relatively new tool shouldn’t slow efforts to sharpen the ones we already have.

  • Capital Idea

    It seems no one is sure who first uttered the old wisecrack “Light dawns on Marblehead,” but it seems that light has finally begun to dawn on Beacon Hill, as well, with talk that the state should devise a mechanism to divert more of its capital gains tax revenue into reserve accounts as a way of tamping down the volatility that comes with economic booms and busts.

    A recent report by MassINC found that Massachusetts is the third most dependent state in the nation on capital gains revenues.  Such monies are really a two-edged sword.  On the one hand, Massachusetts is fortunate to have a concentration of educational, scientific, medical, financial services and high-technology businesses and institutions, whose prosperity during good times fills the state’s coffers to over-flowing. 

  • Lawmakers look to capital gains tax to bolster savings

    Lawmakers look to capital gains tax to bolster savings

    The economic downturn has produced a record decline in the taxes Massachusetts collects from taxpayers on their investment profits, a $1.6 billion drop-off that is largely responsible for the worst fiscal crisis to hit state government in decades.

    The 75 percent decline in capital gains tax payments for the fiscal year that ends June 30 is also producing an unusual consensus on Beacon Hill, where Governor Deval Patrick’s administration and lawmakers are moving to protect the state against wild swings in income by diverting more of the tax proceeds into savings.

  • A Report Card for Ed Reform

    This week, The Globe editorial page reflected on 15 years of education reform, which has cost billions while disparities persist. We said a study by the think tank MassINC painted a “sobering” picture,, and we added our own recommendations: that legislators continue to fund public education and that teachers unions revisit their “outmoded” opposition to merit pay.

    The editorial set off a spirited debate. djmojo wrote: “What is outmoded is the Globe’s continued insistence for merit pay in education. Educators work through collaboration on competition… Save the anti-union rhetoric and address the important issues, such as the amount of teachers being laid off across this Commonwealth. We are in danger of losing all the gains we have made since Ed reform.”

  • The Schools 15 Years Later

    A new study marking 15 years of education reform points to tough challenges in cities and towns with burgeoning enrollments of low-income students and those lacking English skills. It’s a sobering report. But it’s not intimidating. Education reform in Massachusetts has always been focused on elevating students in hardscrabble communities.

    Lawmakers understood in 1993 that students in Chelsea, Lawrence, Holyoke, and other poor cities couldn’t compete for academic honors with their suburban counterparts. But the Legislature could equalize average spending per student and ensure that every school district had sufficient resources to implement the state’s new academic standards.

  • A brave call for raising the charter cap

    A brave call for raising the charter cap

    When MassINC speaks, it’s well worth listening.  After all, the nonpartisan think tank has established itself as a thoughtful, careful, credible voice on public policy in Massachusetts.

    Yesterday, it called for raising the cap on charter schools.

    That recommendation comes as part of a detailed analysis of the state’s long education reform effort.  The study, “Incomplete Grade: Massachusetts Education Reform at 15,” is a good news/bad news evaluation.

  • Ed Reforms Next Steps

    It has been 15 years – and billions of dollars – since Massachusetts embarked on the reform of public education. And the results of a newly released study document one of those glass half-full, half-empty conclusions.

    The title of the MassINC report, “Incomplete Grade” pretty much says it all.

  • Education overhaul facing big hurdles

    The changing demographics call into question the likelihood of the state meeting the bold vision of its overhaul effort: that all students, regardless of their zip code, can achieve at their highest levels, according to the report, “Incomplete Grade: Massachusetts Education Reform at 15” by MassINC, a nonpartisan public policy research and educational institute.

    This cautionary note looms large over the otherwise significant gains achieved over the past 15 years, including steady improvement on state and national standardized tests and increased equity among school districts on per-pupil spending.

  • Scrutiny for Special Ed

    More than one in six Massachusetts students are in special education, one of the highest percentages in the country and a level on par with the numbers the state had at its peak before reforms were put in place in 2000.

    But while there was a pitched battle about a decade ago when lawmakers moved to rein in costs and enact standards on special education that are more in line with those of the rest of the country, nary a word is heard these days about examining the $2 billion special education price.

  • Avoid the boom and bust

    And speaking of rolling the dice, Bay State budget-writers have been all too happy in recent years to balance the state budget on revenue from the highly volatile capital gains tax.  But it’s a gamble that is not paying off for taxpayers. 

    As the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth (MassINC) reported in a study a few months back, Massachusetts is more dependent on revenue from capital gains than every other state but Oregon and Connecticut.  Such an over-reliance has led to unnecessary budget deficits when the real estate and stock markets sour, and the constant race to plug the holes with new revenue.  

     

  • The shape of watts to come – CommonWealth Magazine

    CommonWealth magazine

    Leonard Bicknell confesses that he’s a nut about consuming less energy, even if it costs him more to do so. Over the years, the South Shore heating oil dealer has super-insulated his house, installed magnetic interior storm windows, and switched over to a solar water heater.

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