Public Policy Updates: FY21 Hearing on Ways and Means

The Joint Committee on Ways and Means held their hearing on education and local aid at the Malden Senior Center on Friday, March 6. The Committee was chaired by Senator Jason Lewis and Representative Christine Barber. Testimony was only taken as invited; anyone wishing to give testimony on a budget matter may do so at the open session on Tuesday, March 24 at 11 am at the State House. Senator Lewis opened by quoting Hamlet, reminding speakers "brevity is the soul of wit."


Testimony opened with a panel of Secretary of Education James Peyser, Commissioner of Higher Education Carlos Santiago, Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Jeffrey Riley, and Commissioner of Early Education and Care Samantha Aigner-Treworgy. Secretary Peyser presented the administration's budget, arguing that the Student Opportunity Act reporting requirements as giving "a deeper understanding of student success." He said the plan "is to do more of what we already know is working." 

Commissioner Santiago noted the changing demographics of Massachusetts: the high school population of Massachusetts is going down and is projected to do so for the next decade; where there is growth, it is among students in our cities and students of color. These are students who traditionally have not been well served by Massachusetts education "and zip code continues to be destiny." Those students will look for campuses where the atmosphere is welcoming and where there is an analytical framework to assess the tools that will support them. Santiago citied several programs as well as the waiting list for early college as examples. 

Commissioner Riley said that he's a son of someone in the Marine Corps who believed deeply in meritocracy, but meritocracy only works if everyone starts in the same place. He thanked the Committee for the Student Opportunity Act; he said, "we recognize that we have a lot of work to do on the SOA" but "we should not forego looking into the future for what comes next," citing the flat performance on national tests and intend to use SOA resources to "maintain our place at number one." Students, he said, need students need additional pathways and credentials and challenging standards-aligned curricular materials.

Commissioner Aigner-Treworgy in her first time before the Committee spoke of her work of presenting the strategic plan to stakeholders. The Department subsidizes enrollment for 55,000 students across Massachusetts and is working with DESE to align work with the early years.

In opening for questions, Senator Lewis thanked Deputy Commissioner Jeff Wulfson, retiring in April, for his decades of service to the children of the Commonwealth. 

 Rep. Natalie Higgins of Leomister opened the questions by noting that there is nothing of which she is prouder during her first three years in office than the passage of the Student Opportunity Act. "I was both confused and taken aback that the heart of the SOA" the low income implementation was funded at a lower rate, she said, "I"m wondering why it wasn't worth it to fund" the low income students equitably. Secretary Peyser responded by explaning that the count of students had increased, thus increasing the overall amount of money put towards low income; he argued that to fund the low income rate at a higher rate would disadvantage the other rates. Noting that there was still a $74M gap in year one, Higgins asked how the state would ever catch up, and "how do I tell a second grader in my city that they have to wait for another year for that funding?" Peyser said that the plan was to implement the low income rate at an accelerated level over the following six years. 
Rep. Christine Barber followed up by asking about the low income count. Peyser explained that in an effort to raise the count of students to all those in the 185% of the federal poverrty level required by the state, this year districts are either the FY16 percentage of children who then qualifiied for free and reduced lunch or the current direct certification count of students, whichever is higher for this single year. the report on low income count for future years is due in November. To Barber's request for an update, Pesyer responded that a draft will be circulated to the field in the next several months.
Rep. Andy Vargas asked if it would be possible to have it rolled out earlier to have it for this coming year; Peyser stayed with it rolling out over the next several months. The Secretary was further asked if the administration would support a move by the Legislature to fill the $74M gap mentioned earlier, to which the Secretary was non-commital. 

Rep. Tom Stanely asked what impact COVID-19 was having and could have on schools. Riley said he'd be speaking with the field later that day; Rep. Stanley followed up by noting the possibility of additional expenses to districts due to cleaning, or students learning from home for a time. Riley said he had heard there was a possibility of federal dollars being devoted to this effort. Santiago responded that he had heard from colleges that are incurring expenses in bringing students back to the United States; they are also looking ahead with concern to large gatherings like commencements in May. 

Rep. David Muradian said he, too, was pleased by the passage of the Student Opportunity Act, then noting that not all districts saw an advantage from it, and asking that a higher minimum per pupil amount be considered. 

Rep. Higgins, quoting the language of the Student Opportunity Act, argued that equitable implementation means "that each part is implemented equitably" and the Legislature had included that language "to ensure it wouldn't get tinkered with."She said that she "continue[s] to share my frustration that we took the low income kids, the ones who this bill is meant to lift up, and the Governor's budget missed the boat," further noting, "respectfully, we knew there'd be a lot more kids in the count in the first year" and thus that isn't an excuse for less funding per pupil." Rep. Vargas said we don't have to take away from the other categories if we put more money into that category, and "as I understand it, there is a risk here, as we'll have to jump higher" to implement the low income rate over the next six years, so "just viewing it from a risk perspective...part of this is how we share that risk."

Senator Lewis, in closing the time with the panel of Commissioners and the Secretary, noted the recent proposed change in regulation around MTEL in an attempt to create greater teacher diversity, saying he wants to encourage greater long-term collaborative strategies. He said the Legislature would welcome feedback on what they can do to further encourage such efforts. 

Later in the hearing, a panel of MASS (Mary Bourque), MASC(Glenn Koocher),and MTA (Deb Gesualdo of the Malden Education Association) spoke.  Gesualdo opened by saying "the Governor's budget is a step in the right direction, but it shorts" the low income part and "we request that the immediate needs of these communities be addressed in the FY21 budget." She also noted the pressing needs of higher education.
Bourque thanked the legislators for their work in passing the Student Opportunity Act, saying "Your collective value statement demonstrates that the commonwealth of Massachusetts values and prioritizes the next generation and their futures... I am here this afternoon representing superintendents from across the State. Collectively, we ask that the same collaboration and moral imperative to provide equity of opportunity for all students be the driving force as we examine the nuanced disparities found in the current FY21 - H2 budget plan." She also noted with concern the inequity of low income dollar implementation in the Governor's budget, saying "conflating count and rate continues the 2016 equity issue that that MASS and the urban superintendents have long advocated." With regard to the coming low income count change, she asked that numbers be released early enough for districts to find missing students, proposing no later than July of 2020 so FY22 might not be impacted by an October count that misses students. She also noted with concern the cut of the extended learning time grants expanded learning time grants across 12 districts, the missing part of circuit breaker to get to the phase in of transportation being added, and the 183 districts funded with minimum aid. Regarding accountability under the SOA, she asked that the Legislature monitor how much time superintendents and their teams are having to spend on the reports on spending in both the short and the long form, so it might be adjusted in future years.;
Koocher noted MASC's full agreement with the positions of MASS, raising then a caution: we "don't know what's going to happen with the economy" and there is concern that ability to implement the SOA depends on the economy; however, "eighty pages of regulations to put the thing into effect never goes away." He also noted concerns around Medicaid eligibility and funding, McKinney-Vento ("a declared unfunded mandate by the state auditor") reimbursement, the METCO program, and support for small and rural schools. He closed by noting that districts will get back charter mitigation over the next several years; if there is a slump, charter reimbursement may not be funded, but charters will still be funded.

 An early education panel noted the significant increase in state dollars over the past number of years and shared their appreciation of the Legislature's commitment to this sector. Long-term dependable parity in salaries of K-12 and early educators who are similarly credentialed was requested, as has been piloted in the past.

Finally, John Robertson, the Director of Government Affairs for the Mass Municipal Association, and Adam Chapdelaine, the Arlington Town Manager, spoke together on a panel on local aid. Robertson opened by thanking the Legislature for their passage of the SOA, calling it a "generational change," and saying the MMA is interested in ensuring three different schedules that are included in the SOA are implemented. Chapdelaine asked that local aid be tracked to revenue increases. He also noted that there are 183 minimum aid districts and requested additional minimum aid over FY20. He requested for a circuit breaker for districts on charter tuition, as many will see an increase in their charter tuition increase over their Ch. 70 (so they'll see a net loss); he thus asked that the increase be implemented after the charter tuition is removed. He also asked for full funding for the (actual) circuit breaker. Robertson mentioned regional transportation and out of district transportation reimbursement. He also noted the two upcoming studies: the rural schools study and the municipal contribution study. Lewis responded that his office has been reaching out to DoR and DESE on the studies they've been charged with, saying they "think it's important that it be a public process" as the law requires.