Officials dissect governor’s education budget in hearing at UMass 

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 03-14-2023 2:17 PM

AMHERST — Educational issues pertaining to schools across western Massachusetts, including transportation, rural inequities and a lack of sufficient state aid peppered the discussion of a Joint Ways and Means Committee hearing at the University of Massachusetts Amherst on Monday.

The meeting was chaired by state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, who welcomed more than a dozen state legislators and top education officials to her home district to discuss Gov. Maura Healey’s educational budget for the 2024 fiscal year.

In her opening remarks, Comerford described education and local aid as “arguably two of the more consequential areas of state investment, especially as our commonwealth builds back from the inequitable ravages of the COVID pandemic.”

Testifying before the committee were Secretary of the Executive Office of Education Patrick Tutwiler, Commissioner of the Department of Higher Education Noe Ortega, Commissioner of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Jeffrey Riley, and acting Commissioner of the Department of Early Education and Care Amy Kershaw.

The governor’s proposed budget tacks on an additional $1 billion for the Executive Office of Education from the previous fiscal year, bringing the total proposed amount of education funding to more than $11 billion. It adds $445 million to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, $200 million to the Department of Higher Education and an additional $12 million to the University of Massachusetts system.

Although Massachusetts ranks among the highest in the country for the quality of its education, it still faces economic and racial disparities across many districts, and continues to deal with the fallout from the pandemic’s effects on educational institutions across the state.

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Tutwiler testified that the proposed budget has three main goals: to stabilize, heal and transform a public education system still recovering from the pandemic.

“We know that the pandemic has only exacerbated mental health, the mental health challenges of our children, and we want to support teachers who are facing it every day,” he said. “For me, this funding comes down to the people’s lives it will change.”

In 2019, the state passed the Student Opportunity Act, looking to close educational gaps and provide extra support to struggling school districts. Schools also receive state aid from the state’s Chapter 70 program. A new item in the Healey budget includes a proposal to create a program called MassReconnect that would provide free community college education to adults 25 and older without a degree.

Comerford noted that more rural and less populated education districts, many of which dot western Massachusetts, still face chronic underfunding by the state, due to declining enrollment numbers that make them unable to meet required fixed costs, and structural flaws of the Student Opportunity Act related to smaller districts.

“We see a real struggle to see material benefit from the Student Opportunity Act,” she said, citing school districts in Amherst, Northampton and Montague as examples.

State Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Deerfield, who chaired a special commission on rural schools, acknowledged the Healey administration had included an additional $2 million or 36% increase in rural school aid, a significant step up from previous increases over the past several years.

“While I wish it was more — I did want to take the opportunity to highlight the significance of this investment,” Blais said. “But there’s still so much more work that needs to be done to ensure equal educational opportunities for every student in the commonwealth regardless of their Zip code.”

Todd Smola, a Republican state representative from Palmer who attended Holyoke Community College and Westfield State University, spoke of the need to address transportation issues in rural communities.

“When you come into the rural part of the state, this barrier of transportation to get from point A to point B, even in an education arena, is extremely challenging,” he said.

Tutwiler noted the budget includes increased regional transportation support, including $25 million in additional spending and grants, along with the additional aid to rural communities, but acknowledged more work needed to be done to meet all the required needs for those districts.

“We know that there’s a challenge with Chapter 70,” he said. “We see this as a first step, but it’s also an extension of our commitment to work with you to figure out a more sustainable and workable situation in a unique context.”

Riley said aiding rural communities is a complex issue not be easily solved by measures such as regionalizing school districts.

“Certainly the department is given grants for districts to talk about regionalizing, but if the distance between districts is so great, it makes it nearly impossible,” he said. “This is something we really need to keep on going forward.”

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