Public Policy Updates: FY24 Local and Education Aid hearing

The Joint Committee on Ways and Means held a public hearing on local and education aid at UMass Amherst on Monday, March 13, 2023. The video of the hearing can be viewed here. The hearing was chaired by Senator Jo Comerford and Rep. Andy Vargas.
The below represents the invited testimony regarding K-12 education.
In opening the hearing, Comerford referred to education as local aid and education as two “of the more consequential” areas of the budget, particularly as the state continues to recover from the COVID pandemic.
Rep. Vargas echoed the sentiment of local aid and education as one of the most important parts of the budget.

Secretary Patrick Tutwiler alongside the three Commissioners of Education (early education and care, K-12, and higher ed) opened testimony. Tutwiler introduced himself and spoke of his core beliefs: “we must love the student, the teacher, and the craft of teaching, none more than the other, but in that order.” He noted despite the excellence of our education system, there remain vast gaps between and among groups of students, which have only been exacerbated by the pandemic. He said the House 1 proposal was designed to stabilize, heal, and transform. He noted the third year phase in of the foundation budget changes of the Student Opportunity Act, plus the full phase in of the circuit breaker and charter school reimbursements. The proposal includes $1M to support teachers working under emergency licensure, and $1M for mental health supports. It furthers includes additional funding early college and innovation pathways; this includes a “reimaging high school” pilot.
The Secretary also outlined the funding proposed for early education and higher education.
“Because when our students reach their potential, Massachusetts does, too.”
Testimony was offered by Commissioner of Higher Education Noe Ortega.
Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Jeffrey Riley remarked that this felt “like a pivotal moment in education, as we shift away from a pandemic to an endemic, and reflect on the academic and mental health impact on our students.” Despite Massachusetts remaining number one on the NAEP,  he said there was no doubt that our students have lost ground. He said the Department was working with those in districts to create teaching that was “inclusive, and creates equitable opportunities for all students, particularly those who have been historically underserved.” He reiterated the above points on SOA implementation, noting that the budget also quadruples the funding for extraordinary relief for out-of-district special education costs. “This is a strong budget.” He further listed the increases in various other accounts, including regional transportation, rural school aid, innovation pathways, and college and career programs.
Acting Commissioner of Early Education and Care Amy Kershaw also offered testimony.
Senator Comerford asked for some explanation about how the budget proposed sorted what was long-term sustained spending versus one time spending. Secretary Tutwiler connected it to the “stabilize, heal, transform” theme, balancing the need to recover with moving ahead.
Comerford asked about circuit breaker in light of the increase for out-of-district tuition increasing by 14%, which she said was projected to cost $92M, but that the payment would be lagging a year (due to circuit breaker being a reimbursement). Riley said “communities recognize why that increase is taking place.” He acknowledged that there is a one year lag in reimbursement. He said, “we have to figure out how to help them if possible.” Tutwiler further noted the extraordinary relief increase proposed, which comes through “more immediately.” Comerford said it would be important to continue to have this conversation.
Comerford asked about the net school spending relief line; she asked how that $10M would be prioritized. Riley said any budget “tries to best fit around the entire Commonwealth.” Riley said that was a recognition that “some have been disproportionately impacted,” saying that the formula may be determined by the Legislature.

Rep. Vargas applauded the Governor’s attention to universal school meals in her budget as proposed. He noted that an additional 30,000 students were eating, due to the stigma being removed. He asked why the funding was being put in the supplemental budget rather than the House one proposal. Riley said that as an educator, he acknowledged that children’s basic needs needed to met before they could learn. Tutwiler said the speed of the dollars being available for planning was what he believed was the reason for the choice. He added that “a lot of superintendents still have my cell phone number and were not bashful about reaching out about many things, this program in particular.” He echoed the removal of the stigma, that it had done something positive about school culture, as well as meeting students’ needs. It will also be studied more closely.

Senator Anne Gobi opened by thanking the Secretary “on behalf of the entire Worcester delegation for your thoughtful and spot-on comments regarding the charter school in Worcester. It was extremely appreciated.” Gobi then asked about the out-of-district tuition increase, noting that 8% of the 15% increase was for workforce stability, which is an issue beyond 766 schools. She said she appreciated the increase in rural school aid and looked forward to hearings. Gobi further requested information about the $10M in net school spending relief. (Someone who was not micced answered this question, but did reference “a variety of indicators” and that it was a “complicated issue.”) Gobi said if there were things that districts needed to be articulating for this, they’d want to know.

Comerford said the concern over disproportionate impact is that the dollar amounts may seem small, but they are large in proportion to the town and district.

Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, from her perspective representing Cape Ann, spoke of the “lost art of guidance.” She said it seemed that guidance offices seemed “very good” at working for students to go to college and good at the social-emotional work, but that there were many lost in the middle. Riley said national surveys speak of students being disengaged, of increases to vocational programming and early college. Ferrante asked if the Department had considered for guidance counselors; Riley said there were resources now but that it had to go hand in hand with these program expansions. Tutwiler further spoke of “engaging experiences for high school students,” and broadening knowledge of pathways. On a follow-up question on social-emotional supports, Tutwiler spoke of multi-tiered systems of supports. Commissioner Ortego followed up by noting that many of the needs of K-12 from food to guidance continue into higher education.

Comerford outlined rural schools with small groups of students over a large geographic areas, as well as districts with declining enrollment; she said that they struggle to see benefit from the Student Opportunity Act. She introduced Rep. Natalie Blais, who co-chaired the Rural Schools Commission, which came out with a report with 36 recommendations last year. Blais highlighted the increase in rural school aid and the importance of that coming from the budget, and asked what steps they planned to take to support rural schools. Tutwiler noted the increases, but said that was seen as only a first step. Tutwiler highlighted the “unique context” of some such schools. Riley observed that it was a complicated problem, due to the distance.
A number of representatives asked questions regarding higher education.

Rep. Sally Kerans said supported the efforts to make admission to vocational schools more equitable; her own town hosts Essex Tech, which is beautiful and the envy of many, but her own town is 9% of the Essex Tech and 17% of the seats, and it is a big hit on the local budget every year. Kerans asked about an increase in counseling services; Riley said the state budget is funding a screening program to discover the needs of students. Riley said meeting some of that need can be done in house, and some are referred out. He agreed there is need in districts for further counselors; the funding is there, but the staffing is not.

Rep. Kelly Pease noted the increase in regional transportation funding and asked if it was supposed to be at 100%. Riley said this represents this administration’s first recognition of the problem. He questioned the need for teachers to have a master’s degree. Riley said the Department had looked closely at all requirements to become teachers to ensure people are continuing to come into the field.

Comerford said she would hold off on “nerding out on combined effort yield” mindful of their time.

Rep. Russell Holmes noted that being “number one” only meant so much for some students. Said he was certain that the discrepancies among students who had students out of buildings was greater. Tutwiler noted that he was speaking of increased out-of-district tuition costs, rather than anything else. Tutwiler observed the very high COVID rates in Lynn and staying remote much longer certainly had an impact. He spoke of the robust nature of the plans of urban districts for students to meet students’ social-emotional well-being, food, housing and then their academic needs. Tutwiler listed a number of such interventions. Holmes then spoke of police in schools in Boston and asked if there were agreements across the state. Riley said focus had to be on the students who need the most help. Riley said he’d asked BPS to do a safety audit of the districts. Riley said “I agree with that personally” of having police involved Boston Schools, commenting that he knew the audit was being considered by the district’s administration.

Comerford spoke of communities that are capped at 82.5% has grown from 109 to 166; for the capped municipalities which are the wealthiest in the state, their required contribution thus is capped at 82.5%. The balance of 59% of the foundation budget coming from local districts and 41% coming from the state. The study coming from the Student Opportunity Act did suggest that there were possible inequities; Comerford suggested that more and more of the burden is being shifted over time. She said she and Senator Jason Lewis shared an interest in this and would hope for a working group on the issue.

There then was a higher education panel to give testimony.

MASC President Stacey Rizzo offered testimony on behalf of the Association together with Mary Bourque, testifying for MASS; Sheryl Stanton, superintendent of Hawlemont and Mohawk Trail Regional; and Max Page, the president of the Mass Teachers Association.
Rizzo commended the Governor’s proposed budget regarding Ch. 70, regional transportation, charter school reimbursement, as well as the extraordinary relief proposal. She advocated for a recalculation of the circuit breaker in terms of threshold and reimbursement percentages, as well as supporting a commission to study Ch. 71B, and $100 per pupil minimum aid. She commended for their attention the net of children and family services.
Bourque specifically noted the recommended level of rural school aid from last year’s report. She also supported an increase in minimum per pupil aid, full funding for school meals, support for early college, and a commission on the structure of K-12 education. She noted that FY24 was a tipping point for many districts, due to the 14% increase in tuition, contrasted with the inflation rates. She noted that Student Opportunity Act focuses on a small number of districts, and advocated for Fair Share funding to be used to hold districts harmless of the tuition account and fully fund circuit breaker. She further advocated in parallel to Rizzo to changes to the circuit breaker.
Stanton said she was gravely concerned about the looming crisis for small and rural districts. She related the increases for the budget ahead of them and compared it with the state aid being received. Rural towns are struggling to provide town services and still be able to fund their schools. She recalled from the report that districts with low enrollment cost substantially more to fund on a per pupil basis. They also face limited options in consolidation due to travel times. She requested that the recommendations of the rural commission become embedded in the state budget. Stanton said she was most concerned with the experience of the student experience in her schools due to limited options for courses and extracurriculars.
Page opened by recalling his own experience in growing up on and around the UMass-Amherst campus as the son of a refugee from Nazi Germany. He related the success of the Fair Share amendment, as well as the passage of the Student Opportunity Act, and the defeat of Question 2 to uncap charter schools in Massachusetts. In terms of FY24, he said, “our only collective mistake here would be to think too small and act too cautiously.” He said there were many commendable parts of the Governor’s budget which they’d suggest ways to build on. Beyond advocacy on higher education, Page advocated for a professional nurse and librarian in every school. He has advocated for counselors at a national ratio level, a state fund for districts that commit to increased wages for paraprofessionals. paid parental leave, and minimum per pupil increases.
Comerford asked what, of the rural schools report, Stanton would focus on first. She responded the $60M from the Rural Schools report, which they calculated would be $800,000 for their district. The small cohorts of special education students and access to resources for those students is another. Lack of competitive bidding for transportation is another issue she noted.

The hearing then took a panel on early education and childcare.

Someone from Franklin County spoke of small towns with limited local revenue and declining school enrollments. The Rural Schools report was again noted. Jeff Beckwith of the Massachusetts Municipal Commission said that House 1 started in a stronger position that previous years. In addition to advocating for increases to local aid, Beckwith said that MMA was in close alignment with testimony already offered. He also argued for $100/pupil in minimum aid; doing so would cost $18.8M, he said. He outlined support for the $10M in the funding for the net school spending line stopgap, and called for additional aid. He also requested the changes in the circuit breaker outlined, the regional transportation reimbursement, and the rural schools appropriation. Likewise there was testimony from the Small Town Administrators of Massachusetts in parallel. Testimony from the Amherst Town Council outlined the enrollment of the Amherst Public Schools, and noted that, despite Amherst having the largest percentage of support for Fair Share, little to no of that funding will come to Amherst. “Amherst is a community where only the ‘H’ is silent.” Charter school reform was also called for.

Mass Business Alliance for Education advocated for “a strengthening of the talent pipeline” for employers of the future. They also advocated for the next year of funding of the Student Opportunity Act, while noting that they will be continuing to work to ensure the funding was used in targeted fashioned as required. They also advocated for support for both early college and innovation pathways programs.

There was then a panel that advocated specifically for early college. A Lawrence High graduate, now a Barnard College student, said that it made an enormous amount of difference to her as a first generation college student, leading to her ability to succeed at Barnard.
Worcester State University Vice President and Winchendon School Committee member Ryan Forsythe outlined the growth specifically in Worcester. He said they have had students leave high school with 21 or as many as 30 credits in college. Forsythe outlined the surrounding and supporting needs of students in such programs, including food and transportation. In some cases, colleges are guaranteeing admission if students succeed in early college courses.
In response to questions, the student further outlined, “It gave me the confidence to know that I could be in a classroom and I could take a course like that.” She said she didn’t think she would have been in college without early college.
Comerford said she could think of no better way of closing the hearing than with that voice.