As Beacon Hill grapples with billions of dollars in revenue lost to the coronavirus pandemic, city officials across Massachusetts are calling on top leaders to preserve a long fought for increase in school funding, arguing the loss of money could have a catastrophic impact on the state’s most vulnerable students.
In a three-page letter that officials from more than two dozen cities plan to send to state leaders Tuesday morning, they make a passionate case that the pandemic, which has forced a statewide closure of schools since mid-March, has disproportionately harmed students in their communities, who were already lagging academically behind their more affluent suburban peers.
“Many of our students don’t have quiet places to study at home,” more than 100 officials from such cities as Chelsea, Worcester, and Pittsfield wrote. “Some families have limited internet access. Some children have Individualized Education Plans that their schools haven’t been able to follow. And for a number of reasons outside of their control, which include grueling work schedules, language barriers, and lack of familiarity with technology, many parents and guardians have not been able to adequately support their children’s education.”
Meanwhile, the pandemic is exacerbating already tight finances in these cities, causing local revenue to drop while increasing the costs of schooling in a COVID-19 environment. Should in-person instruction resume in the fall, schools will be practicing social distancing and other safety measures, which will dramatically reduce class sizes and the number of students riding a school bus and create new expenses, such as purchasing masks for students and staff.
Part of the frustration, said Roberto Jiménez-Rivera, a Chelsea School Committee member, is that local officials keep getting mixed messages about school funding for next year.
“It seems like some legislators are more concerned we will go down in funding,” he said in an interview. “The best scenario we are hearing is level funding. But no one is saying more money next year.”
The letter is the latest in stepped up advocacy to preserve the funding increases. Local affiliates of the Massachusetts Teachers Association last week hit the roads in their communities in caravans (what they called Care-A-Van) to call attention to the potential funding crisis. Many districts, bracing for a possible decrease in aid, have issued hundreds of lay-off notices to teachers in recent weeks.
The bleak financial picture is not what local officials were banking on when the Legislature last fall passed a law to greatly boost funding to local schools by $1.5 billion over seven years. The law, signed by Governor Charlie Baker after years of lobbying by advocates, prioritizes funding for districts in the most dire financial straits that have the most vulnerable students, such as those with disabilities or language barriers, or those living in poverty.
But that law came with an escape hatch, enabling state leaders to put funding increases on hold in case of a fiscal crisis. Little did anyone realize at the time the state would confront a revenue shortfall in the billions of dollars just a few months later.
The latest indications from Beacon Hill suggest that lawmakers and Baker are nowhere close to getting a budget settled for the next fiscal year, which begins on July 1, and uncertainty over funding could extend through much of the summer. On Friday, to avert financial hardships to local communities and programs, Baker proposed level funding all state spending — including school aid — for July and August, Statehouse News Service reported on Monday.
Districts received $5.2 billion in state aid this school year, and that amount was originally slated to increase by more than $300 million next year. State aid generally covers well more than half of all education expenses in the smallest cities.
Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said he has never seen so much uncertainty over school finances at a time when districts are facing a massive public health crisis and immense challenges in providing students with an education.
“I don’t understand how people can reasonably plan for the scenarios they have,” Scott said.
Local officials, in their letter, proposed a number of measures the state could take to fulfill their school-funding promise. Those measures include tapping into the state’s so-called rainy day fund, increasing taxes on capital gains, dividends, and interest, returning the corporate tax rate to 9.5 percent, closing a loophole that would prevent companies from offshoring their patents and trademarks to avoid taxes, and halting the implementation of the charitable deduction in 2021, “preventing the rich from writing off their large donations.”
The officials also recommend diverting state aid away from wealthy communities that spend well above what is required and also have low rates of economically disadvantaged and English learner students.
Colin Jones, a senior policy analyst at the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, a nonprofit that supports raising new revenue for education, said state officials should make every attempt to keep school funding increases on track.
“We have to be bold,” he said. “I don’t think we can count on idea this will be a quick bounce back.