Margaret Raymond Driscoll is a nine-year Melrose School Committee member who is passionate about excellent teaching and learning for all public school students, and considers it a privilege to collaborate with others who share that passion. You can also follow her on Twitter at @MargaretDrisc. Just to be clear - opinions expressed here do not represent those of the Melrose Public Schools, the Melrose School Committee, or the Massachusetts Association of School Business Officials - they are hers alone.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

State Education Legislative Priorities and Update: 4/29

The Massachusetts Association of School Committees’ (MASC) annual Day on the Hill was held yesterday at the State House. Purposes were threefold: * hear from legislative education leadership about budget and regulatory priorities; * listen to MASC’s public policy agenda and legislative priorities (read them here: http://tinyurl.com/qaz8djg); * meet with legislators to advocate for solutions to local and state challenges. The bonus was collaborating with colleagues from around the state and gathering ideas from them with respect to challenges we all face.

Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, Co-Chair of the Joint Committee on Education
 The work of the Education Committee is just getting underway. Budget priorities that relate to education include Ch. 70, SPED Circuit Breaker, charter reimbursements, homeless student transportation, regional K grants, extended learning time (ELT), and wrap-around services. She said she’s “fighting tooth and nail” for them. Another issue not technically part of the Ed. Comm. but of concern is the Foundation Budget Review Commission (FBRC) results. What does it cost to educate a child in MA? She’s heard “loud and clear” that the budget is not keeping up with costs. Health care costs are squeezing educational investments as are higher poverty, social-emotional, and family health costs. The FBRC is now in the later stages of making specific, actionable, and representative recommendations that reflect the diversity of information from across the state. Early education is a priority. Research and increasing public awareness reflect its positive impact on student outcomes (reduced sped, improved graduation rates, etc.) Another priority is reducing the load of state regulations and reporting. DESE has concerns too and they have a working group on this topic. Legislation is pending. The last priority is keeping an eye on the reforms that have been in the pipeline for the last five years: Common Core, educator evaluation, RETELL, etc., and she’s listening for information on the effectiveness of implementation and outcomes. Question on charter schools: there are 17 bills before the Committee related to charter schools with an “on-going and vivid debate” on caps. She doesn’t see major shifts in the landscape of perspective but she is willing to consider raises to the cap that respect the needs of all students. Charter reimbursement will continue to be a big priority. Question on METCO: The way the democratic process works is that every budget choice has to make its case. One category that isn’t discussed every year is tax expenditures. “In all intellectual honesty,” we have to have a more balanced approach when looking at taxes.

Senator Benjamin Downing of Berkshire, Hampshire, and Franklin Counties and MASC Legislator of the Year
His region consists of small and rural school districts. A “plug” on the policy side: the biggest challenge in his district is demographic trends with a smaller, older, and poorer population trend. How do we get from where we are to where we’d like to be?  What is the process to get a framework for planning among districts? Regionalize? All districts will need to give up something that they don’t want to, and support will be needed from the state to partner districts. His districts need to solve problems like regional transportation, and the state should consider tax breaks, tax incentives, etc. A big issue is that state income tax revenue decreased $450M from 2012 to 2015, and if we take no action, by 2018 the cuts will total $900M with much of the benefit flowing to the top 1% of earners.

Senator Karen Spilka, Chair of the Senate Ways and & Means Committee
Our state leads the nation in education but can always do better (PD, resources, preparing kids for the 21st c., STEM, and entrepreneurial ed.). They continue to look at maximizing dollars/targeting investments to fund schools, and she looks forward to the FBRC report. Legislators need to hear our priorities. Question re: broadband in rural districts to level the playing field: the fact that some geographic areas don’t have broadband is “outrageous.” All district types (rural, urban, etc.) have unique issues but equity is needed.

Representative Jay Kaufman, Chair of Joint Committee on Revenue
They are working on a 2018 ballot initiative to generate revenue related to “fair share.” Looking at the total amount of taxes divided by individuals, the poorest are paying 10% of income while the richest are paying 5%. We have an unfair tax system since, if we want to raise revenue, we increase tax pressure on the middle class and our poorest citizens. This will be an iterative process – we try an idea and it might not work so we’ll need to try another. We constantly hear “we don’t have enough money;” there’s enough money out there - we’re just not getting it. Some of the initial polling indicates we collectively understand the consequences of the “wealthy income divide,” and Wall Street and conservatives are on board with reform.

Pat Francomano, MASC President
Yesterday was a terrible day for public education in the Commonwealth with the Holyoke Public Schools taken into receivership and Commissioner Chester appointing himself receiver. Will they be able to handle poverty and other socio-economic issues in Holyoke? District takeovers, charter schools, increasing rules/regulations that the state and DESE impose on us are an intrusion on public education. We need to challenge ourselves and administrators/staff to keep doing good work, strive for innovation, and provide vibrant learning communities to show everyone what public education is all about. The Legislature needs to understand that we can’t succeed in an environment of antagonism. We must let the public and legislature know what great work our districts are doing and provide examples. Ask the Governor and Lieutenant Governor to visit our schools and see our programs.

Representative Alice Peisch, Co-Chair of the Joint Committee on Education
All stakeholders agree on where we want to be with respect to a good education, but how to get there raises conflicts that are difficult to resolve; legislation is designed to reflect where consensus lies and she encourages communication with state legislators. This is a more challenging year than anticipated. In the past, 9C cuts were made when the economy was faltering and are unusual when the economy is doing well. That appears to be mostly due to increasing healthcare costs. They are doing their best to get public schools as much as money as possible, with Circuit Breaker (full at 75%) and Ch. 70 up. METCO, regional transportation, homeless transportation, and other smaller line items are also increased. They will consider the FBRC report that identifies items of underfunding, but where will the money come from? Think about the connection between all funding the state is required to do. The Ed. Committee will start hearings on legislation next week, with 300 bills expected to be heard by the end of June and the rest taken up in the fall. One piece of legislation to call out is related to reporting requirements and mandates; it was reported out favorably last year and is hoped for passage this session. Update on the K grant: it is funded in the House Ways and Means budget at last year’s level. Districts in the state are over 90% full-day K and the Foundation Budget provides funding; we need to transition away from the grant but she realizes it’s not fair to cut it at a time when local budgets were already prepared; it should be fine for the FY16 fiscal year. They are also exploring how federal early education grants will work and hope to receive some funding that way.

(The Melrose School Committee is taking a more pro-active approach to legislative advocacy this year, meeting with Senator Jason Lewis and Representative Paul Brodeur on March 17th with the expectation that we’ll meet with them again later in the year. The state budget must be passed by June 30th. Find the 2015-2016 Spring/Summer Joint Education Committee Hearings Schedule here: http://tinyurl.com/l22l53o. )