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The Joint Committee on Ways and Means held their FY22 hearing on education and local aid on Tuesday, March 16 starting at 1 pm. Jointly chairing the Committee were Senator Jason Lewis and Representative Paul Donato. While today's testimony was by invitation only, written public testimony is welcome at SenateCommittee.Ways&Means@masenate.gov.
Senator Lewis opened the hearing by thanking local officials for all of the work they have done throughout the pandemic. He singled out educators who, he said, are having the "most difficult, most uncertain, most stressful period in their entire careers." He noted that the equity and opportunity gaps that existed before the pandemic have only been exacerbated during it, that the needs of our children "demand urgent attention."
Rep. Donato noted his interest in the coming federal funding and how it will be used. He also spoke of his concerns about the needs of children "who have been isolated" this year.
The opening panel was Secretary James Peyser, Commissioner of Higher Education Carlos Santiago, Commissioner of K-12 Education Jeffrey Riley, and Commissioner of Early Education and Care Samantha Aigner-Treworgy presenting the House 1 budget request. After thanking various sectors for their work during the pandemic, Secretary Peyser said "the first priority is getting as many students back to school as soon as possible" using local, state, and federal resources. He reviewed the administration's budget request, including the implementation of the Student Opportunity Act at one-seventh, based on October 1, 2020 enrollment.
Commissioner Santiago reviewed how state higher ed had dealt with the pandemic: from the initial work over spring break week as the campuses closed down, to working to meet student needs for technology, food, and other supports, to training for faculty and staff. He said, "affordability is a necessary condition for student success but not a sufficient one." He also noted the concerns around the loss of student enrollment, particularly in traditionally underserved communities, and the work to get students back to being enrolled and successfully completing degrees.
Commissioner Riley reviewed a PowerPoint which opened the "health and safety of our students and staff has been paramount." He then ran through the pages of guidance, the protective equipment provided, the federal funding distributed, and the ten days of training provided at the beginning of the school year. He said, "I would argue" that no state had done more. He said "the medical community" had said that students needed to be back in schools, and he spoke of the recently released study that reviewed Massachusetts reported cases for students and staff in districts reporting their spacing as 3 or 6 feet. He reviewed his plan of elementary being entirely back the week of April 5, of middle school entirely back the week of April 28, and of high school being announced in April, with limited waivers for districts and parental choice for full remote. He said there will be no MCAS waiver coming from the federal government, but the waivers available the Department has taken for accountability, while also extending the window for ACCESS testing.
Commissioner Aigner-Treworgy spoke of the ongoing work throughout the pandemic of early childhood, adding coverage as well for school-aged children out of school buildings. The Department oversees childcare development block grant and child care development funds. There is an urgent need for providers in the FY22 budget. Much of the budget is tied up in subsidies to families. The Department needs to be responsible and agile in information gathering.
Senator Anne Gobi asked Commissioner Santiago a series of questions about Becker College possibly closing; the state now provides oversight for possible closure of colleges. Santiago said the next indicator will be if Becker decides it is closing, creating a smooth timline for that to happen so as to ease the process for all involved.
Gobi then said that the most number of angry calls and emails she had gotten besides the vaccine rollout were around the school reopening. "The Legislature didn't get any advance notice on this, either; it's a little disconcerting to hear about it from WBZ." Districts, she noted, had been planning for months, then suddently had a line drawn in the sand for the first week of April. "It's been horrendous for districts that have been planning for months and months and months," she said, asking why it was done this way.
Commissioner Riley "gently" suggested that the ten days at the beginning of the year for what he said was planning allowed for this, that districts had "had the plans all along." He said they were "getting an outpouring from parents" and that this was "followin[ing] the science."
Gobi also expressed concern with MCAS this year, and noted that regional transportation would be artificially low.
Rep. Donato then asked Santiago to discuss the efforts being made to bring students of color back into the college system. Santiago said all campuses have adopted an equity agenda, and "the culture on the campuses has to change if we are going to welcome those students and get them through."
Senator Patrick O'Connor then asked Riley about identifying gaps in children's learning. Riley said it would be a multi-year process, and that the Department would be supporting summer and vacation learning. He also asked Aigner-Treworgy about support for early childhood educators.
Lewis spoke of the losses of the pandemic, but then noted what he called the "interesting flip side" that some students were learning better remotely than they had in the classroom. He noted that while the state does have two remote schools, they cannot handle all students. He asked Commissioner Riley what provisions were being made for those who "thrive in remote learning." Secretary Peyser said that learning pods were examples of connections being made with the community, that those community connections could continue inside of schools, but "this doesn't mean that all of those or much of those are going to continue in the fall." Riley said this spring was about parental choice, but fall was to "return to prepandemic schooling." He said additional seats at the two remote schools had been opened up, and some districts may open up more virtual options at the local level.
Lewis then asked Peyser to comment on "the technical question" of hold harmless enrollment, explaining what it is. Peyser responded that no district loses dollars due to hold harmless funding, plus there is a great deal of federal aid coming in; he said, "for most districts they will never notice that their Chapter 70 aid would have been bigger because of the hold harmless as well as the federal dollars." Lewis also asked about the low income enrollment count, saying that there were tens of thousands of dollars on the line, and asking that the work be completed, not only for chapter 70 aid, but also for school building formula funding.
Lewis noted that by not holding district enrollment harmless, it reduces overall aid that districts otherwise would be receiving on the order of $120M statewide. Peyser commented that the vast majority of $120M would be going to high need districts that are going to get a lot of federal money and it "would be more than made up for in federal funds."
A public higher ed panel then testified and took questions. President Marbry of Middlesex Community College noted the success of early college in bringing students in and getting them through. They and the state university system have been working with districts on FAFSA completion.
The next panel was Merrie Najimy, Massachusetts Teachers Association president; Mary Bourque, Director of Government Affairs, Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents; and Ellen Holmes, Massachusetts Association of School Committees president.
President Najimy opened by noting the MTA had thoughts to share on many of the earlier discussions, and would welcome taking those up at another time. She said the MTA would appreciate their support in a more localized process in return to learning in buildings. She noted the historic inequities in college enrollment and completion have only been made worse by the pandemic, that a long-term commitment to public higher education is needed. She said that the first year of the Student Opportunity Act was not funded this year, thus the Governor's budget does not put us on track; she said, "our students simply cannot wait another year for the Commonwealth to fulfill its promise." She said that while the enrollment count did follow the law, the law does not take into account a pandemic, and the state should use a hold harmless count in enrollment. President Najimy also urged $15M additional in charter tuition reimbursement and an additional $7.5M in circuit breaker funding. While this marked the anniversary of all schools being closed, she finished her testimony by recalling a happier day, of a crowd chanting "sign that bill" at the November 2019 signing of the Student Opportunity Act; she said, "now that you've signed that bill, I want to ask you to fully fund its obligations."
Dr. Bourque, whose full testimony can be found here, spoke next, centering her testimony on the core values and how they are reflected in the budget. Those include the responsbiility to provide a high quality education for each and every student, and to make provision for health, food, social emotional, and academic needs. MASS is focused on return, reopening, and acceleration. From the budget perspective, this first is calling for calculating the FY22 budget on October 2019 enrollment or October 2020 enrollment, whichever is higher. Dr. Bourque noted that of the 30,000 students dropped in this year's count, over 11,000 of them are in 25 cities. Those districts also then have a drop in their English learner and low income counts as well. MASS also asked that the FY22 budget implement the Student Opportunity Act at one-sixth, as there was no implementation last year. "Using the lower enrollment in calculating the FY22 budget is effectively cancelling any financial benefit received from SOA," she said; the Governor's budget thus is built upon layered savings: the enrollment drop plus the SOA implementation built on the cooresponding lower count of English learners and low income students plus implementation a full year later. Dr. Bourque said appropriate implementation would cost an additional $152M. She asked the state to use federal dollars to support non-Title I schools that would not receive the same federal aid. Dr. Bourque asked for full funding for circuit breaker, for charter reimbursement, for regional and homeless transportation, as well as for the low income student count resolution and the rural schools study created in the Student Opportunity Act. She closed by saying:
I know there will be much written about the history of how we met the challenges of this global pandemic. Our successes and our failures will be assessed and described in great detail. But history is not done being written. For every great event or challenge in humanity – in the world --in our country --history also records how we recover; what we learned from the event, how we rebuilt and improved as a people – as a humanity; who we prioritized as a society. Let the history of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts record that you, our legislative leaders, had the courage to envision an equitable PreK-12 school system that although derailed one year in addressing systemic funding injustices in our neediest and hardest hit school districts – you corrected for it the following year. Let history record your leadership to envision the use of the federal funds for sustainable and deeply transformational support to all school districts, in particular our non-Title I school districts. Let history record that the Legislators of our state saw recovery, reopening, and acceleration work in our PreK-12 schools as a core value and therefore, putting PreK-12 students' needs first, was an easy decision for you.
The testimony of MASC President Ellen Holmes can be found online here. She opened by agreeing with the funding recommendations made by Dr. Bourque, adding advocating also for the "children's services safety net." She argued against "the Administration's disingenuous use of the October 1, 2020 enrollment numbers to determine Chapter 70 and SOA funding for FY22...To use the October 1, 2020 figures deliberately constructs a structural deficit for public school districts across our Commonwealth." She said the second matter of concern is the Department's threat to Chapter 70 in the present year should a district continue with remote or hybrid instruction after the first week of April:
Is the Legislature aware that a Department regulation can now usurp Chapter 70? Nowhere in MGL does it state remote instruction is prohibited. In fact, we have two virtual schools that have been in existence prior to and during the pandemic. If not checked, the precedent of silencing the legislature by using a BESE-approved power grab is disturbing. Are the Board and the Department really accountable only to themselves?
In closing, she said:
...we urge the legislature to include all of us in strategizing for the sound use of our resources by creative, sustainable, and thoughtful deployment of our federal funds. They should be used to support children where they learn and families where they live. They should not sustain or rebuild bureaucracies.
Lewis said one of the most stressful jobs right now is being on a local school committee.
Gobi asked Holmes about the level of collaboration between the state and local districts on reopening. Holmes responded that they did not get any notification other than via the media, and said it was very hard, as districts had thoughtful plans from moving from one phase to another. The district "had a trust process" with community and this was "catching many off guard and was stepping away from conversations we had moved so strongly towards."
Gobi: "I imagine it eroded a great deal of trust...I think it's going to be difficult to regain a great deal of trust" and around penalizing districts if they don't seek out a waiver, "I'm sure it's something my colleagues will be taking a hard look at as well."
Donato inquired about prioritizing educators for vaccines and asked if most educators had yet been vaccinated. Najimy said we are still"still woefully short" "and now [the process is in] disarray." She said, "constant turmoil is because there isn't a process"and "kids need stability...to bring them in for two weeks before the break and then to leave for April vacation only to come back to start MCAS, it's incredibly disruptive and it flies in the face of all of this wisdom about taking care of our students' emotional wellness." She asked that they push back and get a different process.
Donato asked Holmes about the mental health of students. Holmes agreed that resources are needed, but also said there is a lack of human capital; there are certain areas of the Commonwealth where they just don't have those people available," she said. Bourque added the state "needs a balcony view on how to build this infrastructure that do wraparound all aspects of the family and all aspects of the student."
Lewis then asked them to respond to the Secretary's comment federal funds going to the highest need districts and there thus being a lesser need for 1/6th implementation of the SOA and for hold harmless on enrollment. Najimy said the state needs to look beyond a single year, noting that families of color, immigrant families "largely [are] the voices that are going unheard by DESE" and don't trust that buildings are safe. She said using federal funds to make districts whole "distorts" the reason for the federal funds. She said the state lacks a comprehensive analysis of schoo buildings; she noted that pool testing programs are falling off, as school committees and superintendents lack confidence they'll have the funding to get through the rest of the year. Bourque further noted that the federal funds are for three years, and warned of falling off a funding cliff. Holmes again called it "disingenuous," saying "it's just wrong to say 'it's a small number, it's in effect inconsequential, it can be addressed another way.'"
Amy O'Leary, Director of Early Ed for All, and Bill Eddy, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Association of Early Education and Care, testified next. O'Leary noted the focus on equity, and said there is a need to think differently about labor, housing, and health. She said the issue now was "made real and seen" with babies on Zooms and women needing to quit jobs to care for children; "it's time for systemic change," she said."we "have delayed action for far too long." Eddy said that the field was stressed before, and now it is very stressed. They've been on the front lines from the beginning of the pandemic. O'Leary said needs vary locally; local communities need leaders who think holistically. The field had an aging workforce already who now are making health decisions.
Lewis said every child should have access to high quality early ed and we should treat our early educators with dignity and they should be compensated accordingly.
The final testimony came from Mass Municipal Executive Director and CEO Geoffrey Beckwith and can be found in full here. He opened by thanking the state for their support last year which allowed cities and towns to deliver essential services even as the state didn't yet have a budget itself. He noted municipal concerns over loss of local revenue sources, some of which are acute short-term impacts, which he hopes will recover quickly, while the lack of growth in property tax revenue will take longer to recover. The commitment in unrestricted local aid thus is imperative. He echoed many of the education funding points made earlier, including one-sixth implementation of the Student Opportunity Act and hold harmless on enrollment, to which he added $100 minimum per pupil increases. He noted the urgent need among local districts for the rural schools report, and urged there be appropriate funding for such schools in this year's budget.
Gobi asked about the federal aid, which Beckwith noted can be spent until December 2024 (ed. note: for both local aid and district aid). He described it as a Venn diagram in which the main circle is allowable uses, with a smaller one containing what can be leveraged, and the smallest being essential needs; he said, "we don't see it as operational funds."
Lewis asked about his view on what can be learned from the pandemic, patterned on President Biden's "Build Back Better" campaign. Beckwith said MMA had done some preliminary work on this, noting a released survey. He particularly noted the ability to work and meet remotely, calling out in particular remote public participation at meetings. He also noted flexibility in procurement, and supporting regional public health systems.
Lewis in closing the meeting, quoted Rep. Niko Elugardo's tweet:
Ways and Means Budget Hearing on Education should be required study for high school students. So educational. This is where the constitutional right to education gets defined in practice. Thanks Chair @SenJasonLewis for saying Early Ed should be guaranteed as part of public Ed!— Nika Elugardo (@NikaElugardo) March 16, 2021