Our Opinion: Good school plan if funding holds
In a welcome show of unanimity Tuesday night, the Pittsfield City Council approved the ways that city schools will use $1.3 million in new state funding ("Council OKs $1.3M for more education," Eagle, Aug. 14). The money, an unexpected increase over the budget hashed out this spring, will expand an alternative education program in a new home on Eagle Street, introduce restorative justice centers to each middle school, add grade-level sections at two elementary schools, hire an autism consultant and create common planning time for elementary schools citywide.
We applaud the city for funding such worthy causes, and for spending money to build programs' futures. But we must preach a moment of caution amid this rightful celebration.
Officials repeatedly characterized the money as a "down payment" on years of under-funding, proffered by a state government that's seen the error of its ways. They're right. Beacon Hill is beginning to pay districts back for the painful cuts of the Great Recession. But as Thomas Birmingham, the former state Senate president and architect of 1993's landmark Education Reform Act, told The Eagle, it is a "false presumption" to assume that money put in the budget will remain there. Birmingham is a senior fellow in education at the Pioneer Institute in Boston and visited the Eagle Wednesday with Jamie Gass, director of the Institute's Center of School Reform. "Every year is a fight," Birmingham added.
Former city councilor and current Ward 5 hopeful Jonathan Lothrop raised that concern at the open microphone session before Tuesday's meeting. In some cases, the new spending choices can build foundations to last, come what may. But where staffing increases are concerned, and with the specter of another recession increasingly bubbling through the forecast, prudence demands that no future funding be counted upon.
We commend today's lawmakers for recognizing the deep divisions that plague public education here. The Eagle reports (Aug. 14) that this money reflects an agreement that economically disadvantaged children — as more than half of Pittsfield's are — cost more to educate. Hear, hear. But we won't let a sweet deal this year belie the bitter need for sweeping reform in the commonwealth — and neither should legislators.
Already, Beacon Hill has pledged in the next session to finally take up and complete a recalculation of the Reform Act's foundation budget formula, which determines how the state and municipalities share school costs. Mr. Birmingham acknowledged his marquee achievement needs reworking to address troubling recent trends toward widened economic gaps that spurred its creation. We urge local legislators to demand the General Court not pass the buck again.
A sensible foundation budget adjustment would shore up schools and allow them to continue the tradition of quality public education we started at Boston's Mather School in 1639. It would ensure that poorer students are given the utmost opportunity to succeed, leveling the playing field with wealthier districts. And in Pittsfield, it would ease our minds that the new programs trumpeted Tuesday will indeed be sustainable and continue to serve city students — no matter what lies ahead.
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