Former Speaker Bartley, architect of landmark special ed law, dies at 88

By SAM DORAN

State House News Service

Published: 06-15-2023 12:03 PM

Former House Speaker David Bartley, one of the youngest lawmakers ever to lead the House and a champion of education access, died Tuesday at the age of 88.

Nearly half a century passed by since Bartley’s speakership, and he was still remembered this week as a progressive lawmaker who professionalized the staffing structure of the House. The Holyoke Democrat also led Holyoke Community College for almost three decades and served as Gov. Edward King’s budget chief.

“Speaker Bartley was a talented, dedicated, and forward thinking public servant,” current Speaker Ronald Mariano said Wednesday in a statement to the News Service. “On behalf of the entire House of Representatives, I offer my sincerest condolences to the Bartley family.”

Congressman Richard Neal recalled how Bartley “played an indispensable role” in rebuilding Holyoke Community College’s campus after it burned in 1968, called him a “tireless advocate for education,” and said his approach to lawmaking “provided a valuable lesson” for others in public service.

The lesson, Neal said, was that “while he was firm in his beliefs, he understood that legislation is what truly changes lives and knew just how to get the votes needed to pass that legislation.”

Bartley joined the House in 1963 at the age of 27, rose to majority leader by 1968, and when the Legislature handed then-Speaker Robert Quinn the vacant attorney general’s seat in 1969, Bartley ascended the rostrum at the age of 33.

In subsequent years, House leadership has been made up of lawmakers who served numerous terms as they climbed their way up the ladder. Current Speaker Ronald Mariano was elected to the top post at the age of 74, and the two speakers before him were in their late 50s when they took over.

Former Sen. J.P. Burke, who represented Holyoke from 1979 to 1991, recalled Bartley as perhaps the “first real modern speaker,” in large part because of a shifting media landscape.

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“David started in the ‘60s, so TV was also coming into play,” said Burke, while newspapers and other outlets “beefed up” their political coverage and Jerry Williams brought political talk radio to the airwaves.

“He was not afraid to go out in front of the press, not afraid of answering questions,” said Burke, who still works on Beacon Hill as a lobbyist.

A former Bartley aide sees one “major accomplishment” of his six-year tenure as underrecognized: the development of legislative staff.

“When he became speaker, he decided that he wanted to professionalize the House,” said Connie Rizoli, who worked as a researcher in Bartley’s office. “He didn’t want the House to have to be reliant on state agencies for all of their information. He was very sensitive to the fact that it was an independent branch of government and that there had to be knowledgeable people on staff.”

“I think in terms of the institution of the House, that’s something that people don’t really know, and the whole structure of House staff is a result of his initiative when he became speaker. ... I don’t think people realize that,” Rizoli said.

Bartley is most often remembered for the state’s special education law, but Rizoli recalled two other priorities he ushered through the chamber that “show how progressive and inclusive he was.”

A law from early in Bartley’s tenure “said that public schools could not just be single-sex,” she said, breaking down gender-based barriers to admission that existed at schools like the Boys’ Latin School and Girls’ Latin School in Boston.

And in 1971, she said, the speaker partnered with Education Chairman Michael Daly to file the bilingual education bill that gave English-language learners a three-year transition program to gradually shift them from their native language into English “so that you didn’t lose the subject content while you were learning the language.”

The bilingual ed law was later overturned at the ballot box in 2002.

Then, there’s Chapter 766.

Bartley is owed “a tremendous debt of gratitude” by “every student in Massachusetts who has been served by a special education program in Massachusetts in the last half-century,” MAAPS executive director Elizabeth Dello Russo Becker said Wednesday, adding that “includes me personally.”

Becker called the 1972 law crafted by Bartley and Daly a “landmark” for education and civil rights “that has helped tens of thousands of Massachusetts students who once ‘fell through the cracks,’ as the speaker himself observed, to receive the education they are entitled by law to receive and maximize their potential in life.”

Rizoli said the key to that law’s value was that the speaker sat down with a coalition of parents with special needs and took “line by line” suggestions for improving the bill.

Until recently, Bartley would return to the House Chamber along with other former speakers for the ceremonial opening ceremonies at the start of each new session.

Welcoming Bartley at the opening of the 2015 session, Rep. Angelo Scaccia — who entered the House under Bartley in 1973 — reflected on how the former speaker shepherded the “first-in-the-nation special ed law that gave every child in the commonwealth an equal right to equal education.”

“This Chapter 766 has been established now in the 50 states of our union,” Scaccia said. “It is probably the greatest law we ever did in this branch of government, and I want to thank David Bartley for doing that.”

Bartley has been called the youngest speaker since the Civil War, and his fellow Holyoker J.P. Burke — still the youngest senator to ever take office — said they would laugh about their similar superlatives.

“He had the ability to take on the pressure of being a speaker at a very young age. Didn’t bother him. He was a self-confident man,” Burke said, adding that “the young speaker ... was bright, very articulate, not afraid, and his opinion always mattered.”

The Connecticut River Valley city of Holyoke enjoyed a rare couple years of high power in the State House. Bartley’s tenure as House speaker overlapped in 1969 and 1970 with Holyoke lawmaker Maurice Donahue’s Senate presidency.

Then, from 1971 to 1975, Holyoke could also claim the state’s lieutenant governor, Donald Dwight, as one of its own.

Burke called that “a pretty interesting dynamic for a city, back then, of 50,000 people,” and said it had a “very good effect in terms of policy, in terms of jobs” for the Paper City.

Bartley resigned from the House on July 1, 1975 to become the president of Holyoke Community College, and Majority Leader Thomas McGee was elected to succeed him.

He made a return to the State House in 1981 as secretary of administration and finance in the King administration while Gov. Edward King was gearing up for a rematch against former Gov. Michael Dukakis.

Burke said that “many attribute the closeness of that race to bringing David back into the State House, who understood the State House, who knew how to work with the membership.”

Rizoli remembered her former boss for empowering his staff and giving her a “professional passion” that endured. She wound up working for the Education Committee until the early 2000s and still serves on her town’s local Disability Commission.

In the 48 years since Bartley left the speaker’s office, a lot of people have come and gone.

Rizoli called a former colleague Tuesday night, an aide to the late Rep. Michael Daly, to tell him the news. They found themselves asking, “Who should we be telling?”

“And the sad thing is that so many of those players, they’ve all passed away,” Rizoli said.

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