Proposed bill filed by Sen. Comerford aims to address higher ed funding gap

  • Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, listens at an education themed meeting of officials at Greenfield Community College in December. Recorder file photo/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 1/16/2019 3:30:55 PM

NORTHAMPTON — A bill seeking to address a more than $500 million annual gap in funding for public colleges and universities, filed Wednesday by lead sponsor Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, is part of a package aimed at restoring the state’s commitment to public education from preschool through higher education.

The Cherish Act, along with the recently filed Education Promise Act, aim to address what supporters say is chronic underfunding of public education in Massachusetts, and is consistent with recommendations from the Higher Education Finance Commission in 2014 and the Foundation Budget Review Commission in 2015.

“It’s a great honor to be a first-year senator to lead on this transformative piece of legislation,” Comerford said.

She was joined in filing the bill by Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, and Rep. Sean Garballey, D-Arlington.

The Cherish Act would establish, in statute, that the state fund public higher education at no less than its fiscal 2001 per-student funding level, adjusted for inflation, and freeze tuition and fees for five years. That would be contingent on the Legislature appropriating this money to reach the previous per-student funding levels in five years.

Comerford said both House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Gov. Charlie Baker have talked about the importance of education funding, and the matter was left unresolved in the previous legislative session.

“My belief is that this bill will support public colleges and universities in their continued excellence, and will also be a mechanism for addressing student debt by helping to prevent student tuition and fees from continuing to skyrocket,” Comerford said.

Mark said the bill will support the success of the state.

“Massachusetts thrives based on our knowledge economy, and if we want to continue to lead we need to continue increasing our investment in higher education,” Mark said.

The Education Promise Act, filed by Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz, D-Boston, Rep. Aaron Vega, D-Holyoke, and Rep. Mary Keefe, D-Worcester, would address the $1 billion a year underfunding in preschool through 12th grade public education.

In Nurses Hall at the Statehouse Wednesday, advocates spoke in favor of the bills, including Timmy Sullivan, the president of the Student Government Association at the University of Massachusetts, who described an atmosphere in which tuition and fees for college students rise every year, more students are leaving because of the high costs, and those who don’t are burdened by debt.

“We’ve reached this crisis point because the state has not done its part by funding our public schools and colleges,” Sullivan said. “We need legislators to fund our future, and we can’t afford to wait any longer.”

Comerford, who is co-chairwoman of the Higher Education Caucus, said she is inviting colleagues to cosponsor the legislation.

“Our job is to be strategic and wage a good, thoughtful internal and external campaign to build support for this bill,” Comerford said.

She added that she and her legislative team will work hard to study and review the needs of higher education, and provide an opportunity for advocates to offer input. The support of allies, like the Fund Our Future and the Massachsuetts Teachers Association, as well as the 15,000 people who have already signed a petition calling on legislators to pass both bills this spring, will also be critical, she said.

The Cherish Act is a response to both her constituents, and people across the state, who are seeking a way to increase higher education funding.

“This is a good vehicle to do this,” Comerford said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


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