Novick Reports: Joint Ways and Means Committee Hearing on Education

There were two main themes that emerged in testimony at the education hearing before the Joint Committee on Ways and Means Wednesday, March 29 at UMass-Amherst: the impacts of issues outside the classroom on the classroom, and the need for funding reform in both K-12 and higher education.

The first came through most clearly in testimony from Commissioner of Higher Education Carlos Santiago, who spoke eloquently of students who were making choices between buying books and buying food, who have faced homelessness by bunking with friends in dorms. He praised staff at universities and community colleges who are working to mitigate the impacts of these issues on their campuses. This was echoed later on by Lynn Senator Tom McGee, who spoke of the importance of K-12 school nutrition programs, after school programs, and summer programs in giving students some steps towards equity. Tim Collins, President of the Springfield Education Association, cited Hubert Humphrey in his comments: "A society is measured by how they care for the most vulnerable...with tight budgets, those are the people that are getting hurt the most."

In testimony from teachers, from superintendents, from town administrators, and from school committee members, there was a call for implementation of the Foundation Budget Review Commission's recommendations. Bill Martin of Greenfield took questions at length about the impact of residential placements on his district's budget, and the inadequacy of how the state assesses special education costs. "We've begun to ask when will the first one million dollar student happen?" he commented. Brendan Sheran, chair of the Pittsfield High School social studies department and president of their teachers' union, said, "Our students deserve the people, the materials, and the physical school environments necessary to flourish," speaking of the Pittsfield budget, which is projected this year to cut 65 positions. John Hockridge, MASC Division VI (Berkshire) Chair, noted that in a recent survey, districts across the state had reflected the priorities of the Foundation Budget Review Commission, as well as regional transportation and charter school reimbursement, when asked about budgetary concerns. In response to testimony, Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier noted that requests for minimum per-pupil increases were in conflict with calls for implementation of the Foundation Budget Review Commission, moving the state further away from equity rather than towards it.

There was likewise eloquent testimony from professors and students regarding tuition in the UMass and state higher education system. Dean Robinson, associate professor of political science, spoke with two students this week who have accrued over $100,000 in debt. He noted that students were now seriously considering attending schools in other countries due to the cost of even public higher education in Massachusetts. Throughout the day, students were in the audience with signs around their necks, specifying the amount of debt that they were carrying from college tuition. A UMass senior said that tuition and fees have increased at "156 more hours of work at my part-time job" over her time on campus. Another student, who had started at UMass, but had to drop out due to financial constraints and now is at a community college, said he barely makes enough money now to pay bills, "and find myself without money to buy food some days."

Early on, in response to his testimony, Senator Chang-Diaz directly challenged Secretary Peyser regarding the needs that would be presented over the course of the day: "It is difficult for me to understand, Mr. Secretary, why you have stated publicly that you oppose increases in taxes to meet these persistent unmet needs." He responded that it was above his pay grade to discuss revenue, that his job was to work with what we currently had. Senator Jehlen later raised the issue again, pointing out that Massachusetts is eighth from the bottom in equity in school funding. Tim Collins put it more bluntly: "Two years of shortchanging our schools to the tune of 2 billion dollars a year is unconscionable! It's educational malpractice!"