Forum on state education funding draws a crowd

  • Max Page, vice president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, speaks to the crowd at Eastworks on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/GRETA JOCHEM

  • Max Page, vice president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, speaks to the crowd at Eastworks on Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/GRETA JOCHEM

  • Brett Costello, Nellie Taylor and Stephanie Marcotte, left to right, speak to the crowd at Eastworks on Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019.  STAFF PHOTO/GRETA JOCHEM

Staff Writer
Published: 1/11/2019 12:14:05 AM

EASTHAMPTON — The debate over how the state funds education played out in the Eastworks building on Wednesday night where more than 100 people, including area lawmakers, packed into a room to discuss how and why it should be changed.

The forum on public education funding was led by the Massachusetts Teachers Association and several local education unions and comes as lawmakers on Beacon Hill renew efforts to overhaul what critics say is an outdated education funding formula created 25 years ago.

“For decades our districts have been underfunded and short-changed,” state Rep. Aaron Vega, D-Holyoke, told the crowd. “Every district has been underfunded and shortchanged.”

That’s something Vega and other legislators are working to change this year. Already, state Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz, D-Boston, filed a bill on Wednesday that would increase funding to schools.

In 1993, education reform legislation created the “foundation budget,” a formula that determines how much money the state gives to schools.

The formula underestimates public education costs, according to a 2015 report from the Foundation Budget Review Commission, a state commission group created to research school funding.

Specifically, the report found that costs for health care and special education have risen faster than the formula accounts for, and it doesn’t provide enough funding for English language learners and low-income students.

Fund Our Future, a campaign led by the state teachers union, aims to pass legislation this year that would fix the formula by using the recommendations from the Foundation Budget Review Commission.

“This is the chance of a generation to finally provide (the) public schools and colleges our communities deserve,” union vice president Max Page said at Wednesday’s forum.

Last year, legislation to address the foundation budget did not pass, but lawmakers are trying again this year.

The bill filed by Chang-Díaz aims to fix the funding formula and is co-sponsored by Vega and state Rep. Mary Keefe, D-Worcester. Vega told the Gazette he plans to file a bill in the House with Keefe next week.

“The legislation at its core is really what came out of the Budget Commission, with a couple tweaks,” Vega said, noting that it addresses health care, English language learners and special education.

The forum at Eastworks drew many elected officials, including state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, Daniel Carey, D-Easthampton, and Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton. Also on hand were Northampton Superintendent John Provost and Easthampton Superintendent Allison LeClair. Dozens of school committee members from various districts in the Valley were also in the crowd.

Nellie Taylor, a math teacher in Easthampton and president of the union that represents workers in the Easthampton school district, spoke in support of Fund Our Future.

“When I became an Easthampton educator in 2008, we were already being instructed as do more with less as educators and that mantra has not changed over the last 10 years.” Taylor said.

The reason for this, she said, is the foundational budget formula and lack of updates to it.

“There were eight years of cuts in our district,” she continued. “Every year we’re waiting to hear — anxiously — what’s going to be cut this year.”

For almost a decade, Easthampton public schools cut dozens of jobs, both full-time and part-time. Then in 2017, several positions were added for the subsequent fiscal year because of an uptick in enrollment.

Sarah Amoroso, an Easthampton parent of two students at Maple Street School who receive special education services, highlighted the importance of funding for special education, one of the areas the Foundation Review Commission found was lacking.

School paraprofessionals and special education instructors, she said, have been critical for her kids. “It’s because of teachers like this that my own kids are at grade level,” she said.

Speakers also highlighted issues with higher education.

“Higher education and public K-12 — we’re all facing the same struggles together,” said Stephanie Marcotte, Holyoke Community College ESL adjunct professor and a union chapter president of the Massachusetts Community College Council.

According to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, the commonwealth spent 14 percent less on higher education in 2017 compared to 2001 while funding per student dropped by 31 percent.

“We’re doing more with way less but students are paying significantly more money,” Marcotte said.

Comerford said she expects to file a bill next Wednesday that will address public higher education as part of the Fund Our Future campaign.

Although the details are still being ironed out, she said she hopes it will help public colleges and universities continue to invest in their faculty and programs and prevent tuition from “skyrocketing.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com




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