School funding supporters deliver strong message on Beacon Hill

Supporters of improved school funding in Massachusetts delivered a strong message to the Joint Committee on Education today about the need for the state to do a thorough analysis of just how much money our schools need to educate all students to the level mandated by the state.

"In order for our children to succeed in the 21st-century global economy, it's critical that we provide the resources necessary to achieve the high standards we have set for them," said Sen. Edward Augustus, a sponsor of a bill (S.B. 291) to establish an Education Resource Study Committee.

"It's been 14 years since the Chapter 70 funding formula has been updated," he continued.  "Since 1993 the demands on our students have changed significantly. With Worcester and other school systems struggling with budget deficits, it's time we better understand what it actually takes to ensure those demands are met."

Darcy Rollins Saas, deputy director of the New England Public Policy Center at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, also testified, addressing the impact of education levels on the region's economy.

Anne Wass, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said that the persistent gaps in achievement between low-income and affluent students show that more resources are needed to help students who have the greatest obstacles to overcome.

Representatives of teachers and administrators from several school districts also testified about the rising demands on their students, coupled with declining resources. Kristin DeJong, president of the Northbridge Teachers Association, said that her district has been devastated by nearly $3 million in cuts this year that stemmed from declining state revenues, rising costs and the failure of an override vote in May.

The small central Massachusetts district lost 91 school employees, including 64 full-time classroom teachers and adjustment counselors. Among the many negative consequences, she said, their full-day kindergarten program was eliminated, one school was closed, class sizes have skyrocketed at the elementary schools and AP courses and electives have been slashed at the high school. All elementary school librarians have been laid off at the same time the town's public library has been shuttered.

Norma Shapiro, of ACLU of Massachusetts and the Council for Fair School Finance, said that these kinds of anecdotes tell a compelling story, but the state needs a comprehensive analysis of district spending and students' educational needs to come up with a plan.

"Without a serious long-range planning study of what is adequate to meet the needs, we can not work out a reasonable plan for gradually increasing school funds in ways that make both fiscal and educational sense," she said. "Let's be realistic and sensible: Do the study."

S.B. 291 would require the Legislature and governor to appoint a committee that would contract with independent researchers to conduct the study. The last time any systematic study of this nature was done in Massachusetts was 1990. That was spearheaded by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, and the results helped shape the Chapter 70 formula established in the Education Reform Act of 1993. Since 1990, 25 other states have conducted similar studies which have often been used to guide legislative funding decisions around education.

Perspectives from some local educator associations

Sharron Machamer, president, Fall River Educators' Association

"In my role I frequently visit schools and have witnessed firsthand the conditions under which many teachers and students labor. I have seen classes with no textbooks, children learning how to type on paper keyboards and woodworking shops with no wood. It can take over half a period to get old desktop computers up and running. Appropriate software is in short supply. Forget about laptops for all. People clamor for old-fashioned paper around here."

Kristin DeJong, president, Northbridge Teachers Association

"The budget cuts in Northbridge have been devastating after the second override attempt failed in May. This year we lost 91 school employees, including 64 full-time classroom teachers and adjustment counselors. The impact has been huge, including eliminating full-day kindergarten, class sizes of up to 28 children in kindergarten and up to 36 children in grades 3 and 4, no library services or computer instruction in the elementary grades, the elimination of AP English, Psychology, Biology and Computer Science at the high school and a sharp increase in study halls since so many courses have been eliminated. The only reason we have any high school sports at all is thanks to a parent group securing a private loan. Northbridge schools are not what the face of public education should look like in Massachusetts."

Rosemary Jebari, president, Framingham Teachers Association

"I started working in education 12 years ago, and every year I see fewer resources in our schools. School fees are rising. In some classes, students can't take their textbooks home because there aren't enough to go around. We have seen increases in technology, donated or brought in through grants, but then no money for support, so we have far too many non-functional computers. Class sizes are growing, especially unified arts -- art, technology education and physical education -- because we don't fill all the positions when people leave. These are just a few of the cuts, and we expect more to come."

Cheryl DelSignore, president, Educational Association of Worcester

"Over the past five years in Worcester schools have experienced severe cuts at the state level. This includes cuts to Chapter 70 as well as state aid for grant programs, such as class-size reduction, MCAS remediation, and school transportation. We have had to close eight schools and eliminate 572 positions. Our students are being deprived of the traditional tools they need to do well in school – textbooks and materials -- as well as the modern computer technology they most definitely need to thrive in the 21st century. This is a disgrace. It is also poor planning for the future of this state, since most of the children who grow up here will remain in Massachusetts and some day seek to find jobs, raise families and buy homes. If they don't succeed in these aspirations, what will our cities look like in the future?"