Public Policy Updates: FY20 Joint Ways and Means Hearing

The Joint Committee on Ways and Means met on Monday, March 18 at Bristol Community College to hear invited testimony regarding the education accounts for fiscal year '20. This hearing was chaired by Rep. Carole Fiola of Fall River and Senate Assistant Vice-Chair Senator Jason Lewis of Winchester. Bristol Community College President Dr. Laura Douglas welcomed the legislators to campus, speaking of the importance of education in her own family's history.

Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito opened her testimony in support of the proposed House 1 budget by noting that what happened in Massachusetts education in 1993 was "transformational." We "have so much to be proud of when it comes to our students, our teachers, and our public school system," she said, but things have changed "whether it's achievement gaps or opportunity gaps" in our school systems. She thanked the 2015 Foundation Budget Review Commission "[for] the work they did over the past couple of years," saying it was the intent of the administration "provide a multi-year school finance reform" in the proposed House 70 as well as the proposed budget. 
The Lieutenant Governor also announced that Governor Baker was filing legislation to allow for the creation of zones like that of the Springfield Empowerment Zone, saying that this would allow for "new authority, flexiblity, and accountability" for districts.

Secretary Peyser opened with by noting that "Massachusetts schools are the best in the country, because our educators are the best in the country." He said the additional funding was for special education, health care "and to address persist achievement and opportunity gaps." The "bulk of new funding goes to those who need it the most," he said. He spoke of the capital investments in vocational programs as"a human capital pipeline for employers."

The Commissioners of Early Ed, Elementary and Secondary, and Higher Ed joined the Secretary to speak to their parts of the budget. Commissioner Santiago of Higher Education noted that the Department has established "equity as the top statewide policy imperative in statewide higher education"and "with declining enrollment projected into the next decade" [Higher Ed] must serve traditionally underserved students. He noted the importance of the system to no longer be requiring Accuplacer for placement. In Early Ed Commissioner Weber noted his department's "broad purview," saying they serve over 25,000 children daily, from birth to age 16, up to age 21 in residency programs. Appropriate early education can reduce the need for and cost of later interventions. The Department runs family and community engagement networks across the state, and has been working on increasing access of their providers to higher ed.

Commissioner Riley said that the 1993 funding "enabled us to become number one" by many measures of success, but "while we are number one, we are stalled" and have been for several years;"others are catching up." He intends to "return to focus on teaching and celebrating and supporting our teachers." He said the ability, per House Bill 70, for him to freeze funding to districts found underperforming was a critical piece "to serve as a second set of eyes." Citing his twenty years in education, he said he had a reputation of being"more interested in working with people than doing something to people...and we think there are talented people in the Department" that could do work with districts given that authority.

Rep. Fiola opened the questions by noting that the extended day grant had been combined with a number of other grants and the overall total cut by $1M; Secretary Peyser said the intent was for the need for such resources would go away over time, given the proposed increases to the foundation budget. Senator Lewis asked the Commissioners to speak to the gaps still remaining among groups of children; Commissioner Riley said teachers needed "the time and place to go deeper," while Secretary Peyser asserted the need for early literacy and for "purpose and direction" in high school. 

 Asked by Senator Lewis about diversity in the teaching force, Commissioner Riley said it was "a big goal" for the Department. All three Commissioners spoke of current and ongoing efforts to that end.

Rep. Vargas noted the Foundation Budget Review Commission report spoke of 50-100% more per pupil for low income students, and asked Secretary Peyser to speak to the administration's proposal in light of that. Peyser argued that the percentages were not a recommendation [ed. note: they were included in the recommendation as guidance] and that if all additional funding were added up, it would make that threshold. Under a later question from Senator Jehlen, Peyser estimated that all additional funding together would put low income at 60% additional. 

Rep. Kane spoke of the need for attention to non-resident transportation reimbursement, currently estimated at 6%; Commissioner Riley said that he had also heard that from superintendents and that it is being looked at.

Rep. Keefe asked about the intention of the $30M for school safety recommended. Secretary Peyser said $20M of that was intended for capital infrastructure and upgrades; Rep. Keefe confirmed that it was not intended for school resource officers.

Asked to clarify if the $1.1B being touted as an increase was state funding or local funding, Secretary Peyser said, "it's the foundation budget." Asked again, he said "it's not Chapter 70, it's in foundation dollars." The committee later clarified that it is a combination of state and local dollars funding the increase.

Rep. Kelcourse, speaking of the combination of needs in his own district and how those would not be addressed by changes in the foundation budget, asked for a response. Agreeing that there are needs not addressed by these changes, Secretary Peyser said that the inflation rate of 3.75% this year "presents a challenging fiscal picture" and he "hope[s] it goes down" to allow for increases in other spending. 

Senator Gobi noted the numbers of students in charter schools without appropriate reimbursement, the increase in funding to urban districts without corresponding funding in districts like those she serves, and the recommendation in the Foundation Budget Review Commission that an increase to 4% of vocational schools' enrollment be recognized as special education students, which is not incorportated into the Governor's budget or bill. Secretary Peyser outlined his understanding of how charter reimbursement works, saying it "frees up district resources" to have the funding come from Chapter 70 aid. He said the administration did not feel the recommendation to move to 4% of enrollment was justified. 

Rep. Smola said that districts should be able to find out why students are leaving before they are gone and has filed legislation to that end. Senator Lovely said she is "just so concerned" about what she is hearing of the mental health needs of students in schools, which Commissioners Riley and Weber agreed, Weber noting that such needs are arriving at a very, very young age in children.

Rep. Tyler said that she would like to see funding allocated for school safety move towards trauma-informed schools. She asked why the Governor was proposing his plan over seven years; Secretary Peyser said the administration felt it was "achievable and actionable." She asked if the diversity planning would include METCO; Commissioner Riley said "stay tuned" as there is a plan for a thorough review of the program. She asked about Boston's Madison Park Vocational, which Commissioner Riley agreed should be a "shining star" and said he looked forward to hearing what plans the leaders of Boston had for it.

Senator Hinds closed this portion of the hearing by noting the recent first meeting of the commission on transportation. He noted the Legislature's addition of rural school funding last year, and asked for insights on where additional revenue might come from. Secretary Peyser said he didn't have the answer for that, but that Chapter 70 couldn't be viewed as "the whole package" as there are other education accounts of note.

This ended the administration's presentation at the Joint Hearing. Members may also find of interest the Mass Municipal Association's testimony