Former Massachusetts Senate President Thomas Birmingham, who helped ensure passage of the the state’s landmark 1993 education law, has died. He was 73.
Birmingham grew up in the working class city of Chelsea and went on to attend Harvard College and Harvard Law School. He also studied at Oxford University after receiving a Rhodes Scholarship.
But despite his gold-plated educational resume, Birmingham continued to live in Chelsea and always remembered his love of state politics.
The Democrat was first elected to the Senate in 1990 and found himself appointed Senate chair of the Legislature’s Education Committee.
It was from that post that Birmingham worked with the House chair of the committee, fellow Democrat Mark Roosevelt, to pass the Education Reform Act of 1993.
The law created an education funding formula — known as the “foundation budget” — meant to help determine how much schools should spend educating students, and how much the state should kick in.
The goal was to help smooth out some of the educational disparities between wealthier communities and poorer ones.
The law also laid the groundwork for the state’s MCAS test, meant to help gauge the progress of students. The test was also a high school graduation requirement and drew sharp criticism from opponents, including the state’s largest teachers’ union, which argued the test should be scrapped for more authentic forms of demonstrating student achievement.
In 1996, after former Democratic Senate President William Bulger stepped down, Birmingham took over the role of president — considered one of the top three most politically powerful positions in state government.
Birmingham stayed on as president until 2003, following an unsuccessful run for governor in 2002, losing the Democratic primary to former state Treasurer Shannon O’Brien.
Gov. Maura Healey called Birmingham “an incredible public servant dedicated to moving Massachusetts forward.”
“Though he walked through rooms of power and privilege, he stayed true to his roots and never forgot where he came from or what mattered,” Healey, also a Democrat, said in a statement Saturday.
She also credited Birmingham with “advocating for the rights of workers and standing up for marriage equality.”
At the 2011 unveiling of his official Statehouse portrait, Birmingham said he wasn’t sure he wanted to commission a portrait of himself until he realized his predecessor, Bulger, and successor, former Senate President Robert Travaglini, already had portraits hanging in the Senate Reading Room.
“Obviously, when I was not paying attention, a tradition grew up and surrounded me,” Birmingham said.