Public Policy Updates: Joint Committee on Ways and Means Hearing for FY19

The Joint Committee on Ways and Means held their hearing on local aid and education at Peabody City Hall on Monday, March 19, 2018. The Peabody High School Chorale opened the hearing with the National Anthem and two other pieces. 

Opening testimony was offered by Secretary Peyser, and Commissioners of (respectively) Early Education and Care, Higher Education, and Elementary and Secondary Education, Tom Weber, Carlos Santiago, and Jeff Wulfson. Peyser opened with remarks on the proposed budget, noting the increase in Chapter 70 funding, the 28,000 more students captured by the economically disadvantaged count, the $15M of funding towards evacuees from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He remarked that the funding is "nearly twice what the foundation budget requires." He noted the rate increases in early education, the funding of "industry clusters" in vocational education, the expansion of early college programs, and the increase in scholarships for community college students. He summed up the Baker administration's educational priorities as:

  1. improving the quality of early education
  2. "reenforcing the foundations of the 1993 education reform act," which he characterized as standards, assessment, and accountability
  3. empowering "schools and educators," pressing for passage of the PASS act, which would expand empowerment zones
  4. expanding career and technical education
  5. improving college affordability and completion

Commissioner Santiago set Higher Ed's priorities as making college accessible and affordable, closing opportunity and achievement gaps, and improving college completion rates. Santiago noted the declining population of college students; the only growing population is among Latino students. Combined with the "silver tsunami" of Baby Boomers leaving the workforce, Santiago commented that higher ed is poised to assist with both: "to serve the public good by investing in human capital." He noted the changes in the system of remediation and the ability of students to transfer among institutions. He said, "Higher ed changes lives, and in doing so, it changes communities."

Commissioner Weber opened by remarking that his department serves people in childcare centers up to age 16, and those in residential centers up to age 21. He is focused on providing a "high quality and accessible early education system." The deparmental priorities are improving outcomes through access, improving success through supports, and complying with federal mandates (as a significant amount of funding comes from the federal government). Early Childhood continues to work on the rate reimbursements and the renumeration of childcare workers. The department is also creating a career lattice for those in childcare to attain higher education and certifications. Weber noted that they are seeing firsthand in the preschool expansion initiative the difference early education can make in the need for later interventions.

Commissioner Wulfson forwent his spoken testimony (he submitted testimony in writing) to note the 25th anniversary of the 1993 Education Reform Act as a chance to celebrate the successes and plan for the work ahead. He spoke of the very many people who had contributed to those who had contributed, noting especially teachers and others in schools doing the daily work.

Rep. Paul Tucker of Salem asked for the plans regarding plateaued achievement, to which Peyser responded that they would be "focusing on where the gap is greatest," and spoke of Lawrence. Tucker asked if dispensing with the collective bargaining agreement was a critical part of the success of Lawrence or of empowerment zones; noting that the new contract is little more than a compensation agreement, Peyser responded, "To my knowledge, the Springfield Teachers' Union has wholeheartedly embraced the new contract."

Mayor Kim Driscoll offered testimony out of order to advocate for local aid, for Chapter 70 funding and for charter school reimbursement. Superintendent Herb Levine of Peabody likewise offered testimony out of order, speaking first as a superintendent advocating for transportation reimbursement and the kindergarten grant, as low class sizes "have a tremendous impact on kids." He then spoke as the father of a young man in recovery; "You need to be much more bold" in addressing addiction, he told the Committee. Recovery high schools, he said, "need to double and triple."

Secretary Peyser was closing questioned by several members of the committee about the administration's commitment to funding education adequately, particularly of the most in-need children. Senator Chang-Diaz asked about what learning the administration could take away from the past twenty-five years on addressing the areas of greatest need. Peyser responded that the adminstration had created "a progressive formula for districts with the highest concentration of low income students," adding that the overall foundation budget had increased as had the overall percentage going to low income students. Chang-Diaz asked how we could be asking districts to perform when the state hasn't taken action on the Foundation Budget Review Commission's report; Peyser remarked on the main beneficiaries of the Governor's budget being districts that get most of their funding from the state. Asked about the charter reimbursement not being fully funded, Peyser, after explaining to the Senator how the formula works, noted that it has never been fully funded and was intended as transitional. 

Senator Donald Wong spoke of the need for looking into how regional vocational schools are funded. Rep. James Arciera of Westport asked if there had been an update in the workforce development report of some years ago; Peyser responded by speaking of taking "snapshots" of the workforce of various regions.

Following up on Senator Chang-Diaz's questions. Senator Pat Jehlen asked how it was, if, as the Secretary had said, the administration prioritizes education, that education funding has plateaued? And how is that related to plateauing student achievement? Peyser noted that "as you're well aware," education funding is set by formula, and further "spending money isn't as important as spending it well, and we don't always spend it as well as we could." Jehlen commented that she didn't see how laying off 61 teachers increases achievement. Going back to his earlier comment on charter reimbursement, Jehlen commented "you're suggesting that we relieve the problem by changing the formula rather than by fulfilling our obligation." Again explaining how the charter reimbursement formula is set in the law, Peyser remarked that charters are "an appropriate way to provide high quality options to those who might not have them." 

Senator Chang-Diaz asked Santiago about the 100 Males to College program; he spoke of it being "nearly a 1 to 1 mentoring programming," and agreed that robust wraparound services would be needed to bring it to scale. "It really is a community effort."

Rep. Angelo D'Emilia of Bridgewater noted that the deferred maintenance at higher education institutions was "a staggering number if you think about it," to which Peyser agreed, noting that the administration has chosen to prioritize deferred maintenance over new construction. In response to Rep. Vinny deMacedo's request for further information on this, Peyser said that this did not mean there would be no new buildings, but that any such buildings would be replacing those which were beyond repair.

Senator Joan Lovely, who chaired the hearing, noted, as several had before her, the Boston Globe article on the inequities in the funding formula as reflected in Brockton. She asked the Secretary to comment on the teachers laid off, the deferred maintenance, and the $1.28 per pupil being spent in classroom supplies. Peyser responded that he could not comment on the specifics of Brockton; "the choices they make between maintenance and staff are really up to them...that's not to say it's a bad choice; it's just that we don't control the choices they make." Lovely noted that there's a $60M deficit in their school budget, "and that's not specific to Brockton, as well." 

After a brief recess, Nerissa Wallen of Triton Regional School Committee and Beverley Griffin-Dunne of the Peabody School Committee both addressed the committee. Wallen noted that her own district is "just one bad budget or bad budget year away from Brockton," and "it's not just in our schools." She asked for the Legislature's help, focusing in particularly on regional school transportation among other funding measures. Wallen's remarks in full can be found here. Griffin-Dunne noted "our schools right now are a reflection of what our society is," and the funding formula "doesn't recognize today's needs." "When you're faced with cutting a teacher or deferring maintenance, your school committees are always going to put a teacher before the students," she said. Asked by Rep. Tom Walsh of Peabody how Triton would manage if they did not get everything they need, Wallen responded that if their override failed, they would have to make significant cuts. Rep. Liz Malia of Boston agreed that students need "significant supports."

A higher ed panel spoke of college affordability and of meeting the needs of students struggling with homelessness and hungry. Staff from Coordinated Family and Community Engagement spoke of the importance of such work. A Triton Regional parent spoke of the need for support from the state and the importance of small class sizes.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association panel opened with President Barbara Madeloni speaking of her "at best disappointment, moving towards outrage" at the FY19 budget as proposed. Accounting for inflation and enrollment factors, she said, the budget for elementary and secondary education is down 5% since FY02 and "in the context of a student body that is much needier." It is, she said, "unacceptable anywhere, but particularly in a state that holds itself as an example of public education." She also noted the Springfield teachers' union opposition to the PASS bill. She noted the sharp rise in tuition and fees in public education, echoed by a Salem State professor who said he has students every year who fall behind because they cannot afford the books for class. They called for full free public higher education. The Beverly teachers' union president called for full implementation of the Foundation Budget Review Commission's recommendations, illustrating the gaps between students on access to technology. She also noted the lack of time she has with students now due to testing. Madeloni closed by commenting "we've been given this austerity narrative that we have to compete with each other" for anything additional.

The final panel of the hearing was from the Massachusetts Municipal Association. Mayor Mark Hawke of Gardner, the current president, spoke of the importance of local aid keeping pace with revenue. He also spoke at some length on his concerns over the assessments of and admissions policies of Montachusett Regional Technical, of which Gardner is a member. Ellen Allen of Norwood, the Vice President, noted the downward spiral of charter school funding. She also requested a supplemental budget for FY18 for charter school reimbursement and circuit breaker funding. Shaun Suhoski, the town manager of Athol, spoke of the huge impact of transportion for regional schools on budgets. Additionally, he said "out of district transportation is like a Powerball ticket you don't want to hit." He requested they look carefully at both. Mayor Bettencourt of Peabody noted that local aid allows the municipalities to invest in their community. Suhoski closed by saying "funding for schools is the single best economic tool we have as a Commonwealth."