The Magazine

The Politics of Hope,
Take One

Deval Patrick's unpretty preview of an Obama presidency.

Apr 14, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 29 • By CHARLES CHIEPPO and JIM STERGIOS
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Both are purveyors of "the politics of hope." Both run optimism-heavy, light-on-specifics campaigns, exhorting voters to "take a chance on your own aspirations." Both read from David Axelrod-penned speeches--often the same David Axelrod-penned speeches.

The similarities between Barack Obama and Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick are unmistakable, leaving some to wonder whether Patrick's governorship might be a preview of an Obama presidency. Far from the politics of hope, Patrick's first year in office has been a cross between Mike Dukakis and Tammany Hall.

Despite Patrick's "Together We Can" campaign mantra, there isn't a single Republican in the governor's cabinet. Even if you chalk that up to just how scarce Republicans are in Massachusetts (12 percent of the electorate), it's hard to explain away the fact that Patrick, shortly after being sworn in, set up a 16-member team to cleanse the executive branch of GOP holdovers.

Patrick is committed to big government and has proposed billions in new spending, including a billion-dollar giveaway to biotech companies, a new $1.4 billion commuter rail line, numerous multibillion-dollar bond bills, and a proposal to make Massachusetts community colleges tuition-free. To raise cash, he has proposed increasing business taxes, allowing the commonwealth to increase borrowing, and opening state-run casinos--the last overwhelmingly rejected by the legislature in March. His January budget plan uses nearly $500 million from the commonwealth's rainy day fund and includes a $1.3 billion structural deficit--after a year of record tax receipts.

Then there's Patrick's wholesale sellout to the unions. Fifteen of the 20 most generous PACs in Massachusetts are labor organizations, and they contributed heavily to Patrick's campaign. Repayment began quickly. After the state Labor Relations Commission acted against the Boston Teachers Union for threatening an illegal strike, Patrick simply eliminated the commission from his first state budget. Then in September, he granted a big union wish, signing legislation allowing public employees to unionize without a secret ballot election.

But it is with education that the governor's special interest agenda is most transparent.

In 2005, Massachusetts became the first state ever to place first in all four categories of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, generally known as the Nation's Report Card. When the test was next administered in 2007, the commonwealth did it again. This achievement is thanks to the landmark 1993 Massachusetts Education Reform Act. That year, over 200 business executives came together with a Republican governor and Democratic legislature to enact a grand compromise: high standards, accountability, and school choice in exchange for a large infusion of taxpayer dollars (more than $40 billion so far) into education.

The reforms were overseen by the Massachusetts Board of Education, which was established in 1837 and has always been an independent entity insulated from politics. The board developed a statewide exam that students must pass to earn a high school diploma, a curriculum framework that enforces standards, and a system for teacher testing. All have become national models, and the 1993 act is considered the most successful education reform initiative of the last half-century. (The Manhattan Institute's Sol Stern called it the true "Massachusetts Miracle.")

But the teachers' unions maintain a deep antipathy to the reforms and to anything that encourages charter schools--charter school teachers are not automatically unionized. The unions pumped $3 million into Patrick's campaign, and the governor called education his "singular pursuit." What he is pursuing is the systematic dismantling of the successful 1993 reforms.

He has wasted little time. His first budget eliminated the state's independent education accountability office. Then he used his first two picks for the Board of Education to demolish standards and choice: choosing anti-testing zealot Ruth Kaplan and charter school opponent Paul Reville--whom he also made chairman of the nine-member board.

Then he eliminated the board's independence by pushing through legislation that shortens the terms of reform-minded members and increases the board's size--allowing him to pack it with his own appointees. Beginning later this month, a new education secretary will have veto power over some of the reconstituted board's most important decisions. At the unveiling of his reorganization plan, the usually affable Patrick suggested that those who are concerned about the statewide exam and charter schools should "grow up."