Legislators Say Baker Ed Plan Doesn’t Do Enough
By Elise Takahama
Boston University Statehouse Program
BOSTON -- Education activists agree Massachusetts public schools are hurting for attention, and although Gov. Charlie Baker attempted to bring certain issues to light with his new education reform plan, local lawmakers say it’s not enough.
The plan that Baker recently unveiled in his fiscal 2020 budget proposal would pour an additional $1.1 billion into K-12 systems over seven years, allowing schools to dedicate more resources and staff to low-income communities, special education, English language learners and employee health care.
But local legislators aren’t satisfied, arguing that seven years is far too long for students to wait to see benefits.
“I’m thinking about students in Leominster, and the incoming class at Leominster High School will have graduated years before funding actually kicks in,” state Rep. Natalie Higgins, D-Leominster said in a phone interview Tuesday. “I’m hopeful we can come up with a plan that does it more quickly and that finds more revenue to adequately fund K-12 and public higher education.”
Another main concern among legislators is Baker’s proposed formula for the foundation budget, a term for the minimum amount of state and municipal money required for each district to send to its schools.
Baker suggested increasing the total foundation budget by $1.1 billion, which would pressure both the state and municipalities to come up with much higher revenue for schools.
State Sen. Ed Kennedy, D-Lowell, said Tuesday that he preferred the Senate’s five-year plan, which requires the state to fund a larger chunk of foundation budgets, relieving pressure on smaller, low-income communities.
“It’s probably something that should have been done years ago,” Kennedy said. “This is being done as a result of a study completed in 2015, so it’s almost four years old. But I’m very hopeful that the climate this year is that everybody at the Statehouse recognizes that something has to be done and it needs to be done now.”
Rep. Jennifer Benson, D-Lunenburg, also said she was concerned about the increasing burden on towns to fund larger and larger portions of their school budgets.
“Implementing the Foundation Budget Review Commission’s recommendations will cost about $1.5 billion per year, so the governor’s plan to invest less than that over seven years falls far short of where we need to be,” Benson said in a statement.
And while lawmakers argue over line items, the local public school systems are bleeding, said Darcie Boyer, a member of the Lowell Education Justice Alliance, a local nonprofit created to protect and increase funding in public schools.
In Lowell, nearly all the library aides and librarians have been cut, Boyer said. Full-time nurses are difficult to come by. Textbooks are more than 20 years old. The air conditioning and heating systems are unreliable. Mice and rats occasionally run through classrooms.
“It seems insurmountable ... I’m reluctant to give a pat on the back when it’s taken so long to get to this point,” said Boyer, whose son is a third-grader at Pawtucketville Memorial Elementary School. “How much longer can we wait?”
While state Sen. Dean Tran, R-Fitchburg, was also hoping for a speedier timeline, he said he believes Baker is on the right path.
“There’s always criticism that comes with not enough funding, and that it takes too much time to fund any given program,” Tran said Tuesday. “But we have to keep in mind where we’re going to get the revenue to fund these programs. The governor is trying his best to fund these programs, but at the same time balance the budget.”
Tran promised, however, that from now until July 1 -- the start of the new fiscal year -- there’s “a lot of advocacy that will be taking place.”
Boyer and other Lowell education activists plan to hold a legislative forum in March so lawmakers have the opportunity to hear from people in communities about how the schools are “falling apart.” But she’s optimistic.
“I haven’t heard or seen so much activity around public education as I have in the last few years,” she said. “And I’m hopeful that enough people have realized it just can’t continue this way.”