Massachusetts Senate seen as last hope to fund new education laws despite COVID-driven school …

Education advocates, union leaders and parents shifted their focus to the Senate on Tuesday after House lawmakers rejected efforts to add up to $200 million in additional funding for K-12 schools and universities to next year’s budget, hoping they can convince senators that the state can afford to make additional investments in public education.

The House on Monday night turned down several amendments that would have boosted local aid for public schools to account for the expected post-pandemic rebound in student enrollment this coming September.

While the House budget proposal provided more K-12 funding than recommended by Gov. Charlie Baker, advocates said it still falls short of the commitment made by the Student Opportunity Act because it fails to fully account for the possibility that many of the more than 31,000 students who left the school system over the past year could return in the fall.

“The House decision was deeply disappointing,” said Vatsady Sivongxay, the mother of a kindergarten student and executive director of Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance.

After pausing the implementation of the 2019 Student Opportunity Act in fiscal 2021 due to the pandemic, House leaders said their budget would put the funding schedule back on track by funding one-sixth of the reforms that were originally intended to be paid over seven years.

Based on an agreement struck between House and Senate leaders earlier this month, the House Ways and Means budget funded Chapter 70 at over $5.5 billion, an increase of $219.6 million over fiscal year 2021. Leaders of the two branches also agreed to create $40 million reserve to help districts severely impacted by a decline in enrollment over the past year.

The Legislature’s plan, however, would spread out the delayed funding from this year for the Student Opportunity Act over six years, instead of catching up all at once, and is predicated on waiting to see whether children return to the classroom this fall.

“The House budget proposal has made an attempt to get us back on track, but by using October 2020 enrollment data this falls short for Framingham,” said Christine Mulroney, president of the Framingham Teachers Association.

Mulroney said her city’s schools will need the additional funding as students return in the fall to provide before- and after-school support and to hire additional social workers, school psychologists and paraprofessionals to help students readjust.

MEJA and other organizations want to see the Legislature use pre-pandemic student enrollment data to calculate Chapter 70 aid in fiscal 2022. They say the decline in enrollment in many districts, especially in early grades, can be attributed to the pandemic, and districts can’t wait a full year for their funding levels to correct if students return for the 2021-2022 school year.

“There’s no reason not to budget for all of these kids right now. We have the resources at hand,” said Colin Jones, senior policy analyst for the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.

Jones said ideally the Legislature would convert the $40 million reserve into recurring Chapter 70 aid and add an additional $90 million to catch all districts up to funding levels they expected before COVID-19 arrived.

He said the House Ways and Means budget represented a “step in the right direction,” but said, “We have to be pretty honest to say that this was short of what was actually needed.”

The Senate Ways and Means Committee will review the budget that the House produces this week and draft its own proposal for debate in May, giving advocates time to work on senators who may, or may not, be more sympathetic to their arguments.

If the Senate did increase funding for Chapter 70, it would be breaking the agreement its leaders reached with the House.

“Now we’re asking the Senate to do right,” Sivongxay said.

While the American Rescue Act has made billions of dollars in federal aid available to Massachusetts, legislative leaders are waiting for clear guidance on how the money can be spent and are reluctant to bake it into the state’s annual budget knowing that it will be gone in two years. State tax collections are also far outpacing projections used to build spending plans, creating the potential for a significant budget surplus.

Jennifer Dowdell, a mom of triplets in Boston, said two of her children were diagnosed with autism prior to the start of the pandemic, but her family had to adjust to reduced support services at home due to COVID-19. She’s now being encouraged to enroll her triplets in Boston public schools, but is reluctant and would like to see more specialized services for her children funded in the school budget.

“We do not feel comfortable enrolling our children in a school system that has floundered in making school safe for children to go back. I am not taking the risk of sending my triplet toddlers to a school where they will be required to practice social distancing, knowing that it is difficult for any small child,” Dowdell said.

The groups also supported an amendment filed by Rep. Sean Garballey that would have would have put $120 million more into public colleges and universities for faculty, financial aid and scholarships, among other programs.

Max Page, vice president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said that after the passage of the Student Opportunity Act he and other activists thought they would finally be able to engage lawmakers in a discussion about what they see as the long-term underfunding of public higher education.

The Garballey amendment would have been a one-year down payment on legislation know as the CHERISH Act that supporters said would begin to help address problems created by student debt and low pay for adjunct faculty.

The University of Massachusetts for the second year in a row froze tuition for next year for in-state students, in large parts thanks to the federal relief funding. But Page said many students continue to struggle to pay for tuition or take on more debt than they can afford. He said enrollment in community colleges by students of color has fallen 30 percent.

“We cannot achieve our racial and economic justice goals without debt-free access to high quality public colleges and universities,” Page said.


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