BOSTON — Lawmakers and educators in Berkshire County and across the state have expressed concern over the future of public schools if the Student Opportunity Act is not fully funded.
The seven-year plan, signed into law in late 2019, is designed to gradually increase state funding for schools that serve lower-income students.
In Berkshire County, Pittsfield stood to gain the most from the act, set to receive $3 million to $4 million a year for a total of $21 million to $24 million over the seven years, said state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, who called the funding “transformative.”
But, the state delayed the start of funding for the act from 2020-21 to 2021-22, citing a coronavirus pandemic-related revenue shortage. There are concerns that the budget would let lower-income students slip through the cracks, as last year Gov. Charlie Baker’s budget recommendation for fiscal year 2021 set the phase-in rate for students living in poverty at 4 percent, rather than the 14 percent level of other districts.
The statewide teachers union believes that districts would lose out on $176 million they would get if the law were implemented fully, according to Massachusetts Teachers Association Vice President Max Page.
Much of that money would be invested into providing low-income students in the county with resources to access services they need, said Melissa Campbell, president of the United Educators of Pittsfield, the local teachers union.
Baker’s fiscal year 2022 budget proposal would increase allocations to $48 million for Pittsfield and $13 million for North Adams. These numbers, while significant, were less than expected, lawmakers and educators say.
Enrollment numbers down
The state takes a census of students in each district to determine how much each school needs through the act, a count that takes place every October. With enrollment numbers down 37,396 during the pandemic — either since parents were looking for home-schooling alternatives or students were needing to take up jobs to support their families — advocates worry that schools will receive less than what they need as students begin to return.
“Over 30,000 students don’t disappear from the roll,” Ellen Holmes, president of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said March 16, during a virtual hearing before the Ways and Means Committee.
Holmes and other advocates pressed the committee to instead use the October 2019 numbers, which they believe offer a more accurate reflection of what districts need.
Holmes said the state long has undercounted low-income students, arguing for the need “to be finding students who were not being counted already.”
“The idea that we’re going to base next year’s funding on the Oct. 1 enrollment numbers in the middle of the pandemic really doesn’t make any sense,” Farley-Bouvier said.
Some fear that districts with low-income students would fail to keep up with other districts without additional money, particularly if staff or potential hires opt for neighboring districts where the pay is higher.
“Many teachers leave Pittsfield because they can make more money in some of the surrounding districts, and Berkshire County is small, so, it’s really easy to just drive next door and make $10,000 more,” Campbell said.
State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, remains hopeful that the $4.5 billion in state aid from the $1.9 trillion federal virus relief plan will help make up for the shortfall in money that pushed back the start of implementation of the act by a year.
“We now are going to have considerable new funds available to us because of the federal stimulus, and those are one-time funds,” Hinds said. “It makes it increasingly likely, in my view, that we can get back on track and put forward an amount of funding that allows us to do that.
“I feel pretty confident that we’ll make sure that we’re using the numbers that benefit the schools the most, because they’re the ones that are paying the price if we get this wrong.”
The joint Ways and Means Committee, of which Hinds is a member, has yet to determine what figures to use for the budget.
One budget observer also suggested that the state has the revenue it needs to fully fund the act.
“Our revenue numbers didn’t decline as much as we thought; the federal revenue that’s coming in is very significant,” said Collin Jones, senior policy analyst for the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center. “So, that’s why I would say all of those indicators are saying let’s be ambitious and try to get our school funding plan back on track because we’ve got resources that we can use.”
Costs of protective equipment
A considerable chunk of districts’ money from the state has gone to personal protective equipment this year, leaving less money for other expenses.
Some see the funding debate as related to the battle between the state and teachers unions over returning to in-person learning. Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Jeff Riley has set an April 5 deadline for schools to return to in-person learning for elementary students, leaving unions fearful over virus safety as well as the continued potential for PPE expenses to eat up budgets as many teachers and students remain unvaccinated.
Teachers became eligible for vaccinations in Massachusetts beginning March 11, later than in most states. Hinds contrasted teachers’ spot in vaccine eligibility with the pace at which the state sought to bring them back to the classroom.
Riley, when speaking before the Ways and Means Committee, argued that a return was safe, defending the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s 3-foot distancing policy, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has endorsed.
“There is no substantial difference in cases amongst students or staff either at three feet versus six feet,” he said, citing a study from the Clinical Infectious Diseases Journal. “So, I think now is the time to begin the process of getting our kids back in school more robustly.
“Even with the recognition that there’s limited transmission in schools, we will still have to deal with cases that come in from the outside. So, that’s always going to be part of what happens until we achieve herd immunity and get fully past this.”
Campbell said she believes that Riley is making the push to get students to take standardized tests in person. Teachers unions largely oppose administering the test this year.
Unions and their allies also believe the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education overreached by giving Riley the authority to end hybrid and remote learning, arguing that such a decision should be left to locals.
“It’s incredibly dangerous to have a single unelected individual judging every single town’s health and safety protocols and whether they’re in place and whether it’s sufficient time for people to prepare,” Page said.