Funding Our Future

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Funding Our Future

Alice Wanamaker, Editor-in-Chief

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As Max Page, the vice president of the Massachusetts Teachers’ Association (MTA) and a professor at UMass Amherst, ran through a list of historical government actions supporting education, the crowd at Eastworks listened in rapt attention.

First, Page talked about the Massachusetts state constitution, which includes the command to “cherish public education”. Then he skipped forward to 1993 and the creation of the foundation budget, a formula designed to provide all Massachusetts public schools with a baseline level of funding necessary to provide adequate services. After mentioning 2015, the year when issues with this formula and its implementation surfaced, he moved on to the present day.

“2019,” he declared to cheers, “is the year we fix this, and fully fund public education.”

When the foundation budget was created in 1993, it was with the understanding that it would be evaluated and updated every few years to keep up with changing situations. The first review did not occur until 2015, over two decades later. The Foundation Budget Review Commission, a nonpartisan group, found many problems. Not only was the formula out of date, they claimed, but the Massachusetts legislature had actually failed to deliver all the money promised in the original budget. The commission concluded that K-12 education in Massachusetts was underfunded by over a billion dollars. The Fund Our Future initiative, run by the MTA, aims to update the formula and secure that missing funding.

On January 9th, 2019, a forum was held at Eastworks in Easthampton to educate the public about the issues and initiative. Elected officials from Easthampton, Northampton, East Longmeadow, Ludlow, Holyoke, Westhampton, and other nearby cities were present. Titles included the president of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC), state senators and representatives, and many school committee members from around the Commonwealth.

Stories were shared about how insufficient funding has limited the abilities of public schools across the board. Nellie Taylor, a math teacher at EHS and the president of the Easthampton Education Association, talked about how the Easthampton school district had changed in the decade she has been teaching there. (According to the Foundation Budget Review Commission, the Easthampton school district is owed roughly $700,000). Out of those ten years, there have been staffing cuts made for eight; only in the last two has the budget been stable, and a few positions restored. Sarah Amoroso, a parent of children at Maple School, discussed how the district has faced cuts across the board: shop, drama, and ELL teachers; guidance and adjustment counselors; math and literacy specialists and tutors; and money for technology, textbooks, and curriculum development. Taylor imagined what the students graduating from the Easthampton schools could achieve if their schools had been fully funded, and wondered what effects the continuous cuts the district faced for nearly a decade had on students. “Today’s EHS students have never had fully funded public schools,” she said. “Students graduating college have never had fully funded public schools. That needs to change.”

Elementary through secondary education is a central facet of the campaign, but higher education is included as well. The Foundation Budget Review Commission calculated that Massachusetts public colleges and universities were owed over $500,000,000 in state funding. Stephanie Marcott, an ELL teacher at Holyoke Community College (HCC) and the HCC chapter president of the Massachusetts Community College Council, talked about the difficult choices HCC has recently been forced to make. (According to the Commission, HCC is owed over $9,500,000). Marcott said that HCC had been forced to consolidate the number of classes and majors offered, and had to limit the hours that services like the library would be open, making them less accessible to evening students or others on an unconventional schedule. Class offerings and accessibility of services like guidance and nurses are issues in K-12 schools as well, and Marcott said unity when facing these issues was critical: “Higher education and K-12 need to stick together, because we are facing the same issues.”

Across the board, special education was named as an area for which funding is especially critical. Taylor mentioned a behavioral program which was modified and eventually cut, and a decrease in the number of paraeducators and administrative assistants the district has been able to afford. She said that Easthampton needed to continue restoring positions, particularly special education and inclusion teachers (teachers who support special education students learning in a traditional classroom). Some of Amoroso’s children receive special education services, and Amoroso commended their achievements as a result of the support they received from paraprofessionals. Those teachers, she said, were critical to make school a supportive environment where they could succeed. Special education funding is an issue at HCC as well. Holyoke state representative Aaron Vega said that 75% of HCC students are in remedial English and math classes, and 50% of HCC students do not successfully earn a degree. Cutting services such as the library and tutoring makes it less likely that those students will be able to graduate.

Fund Our Future is well on its way to making changes within Massachusetts. Although Vega says they intend to phase in the new funds rather than simply add a billion dollars next year, the group has set a deadline to fix these issues: May 1st. A bill was introduced on January 9th which would remedy the funding issues in K-12 education, and one addressing higher education will be unveiled next week. At the forum, the group asked four state legislators whether they would support the legislation being passed. As each name was checked off, the packed house cheered.

The group is hopeful that they will be able to fix the problems by May, but they did have some worries about outside interests which would try to capitalize on the movement. Both Page and Taylor mentioned privatization as a concern: the fear that new funds being introduced to districts would be funneled out to private testing or curriculum companies, or that charter schools and other public-school alternatives would attempt to use Fund Our Future’s arguments to take funding from public schools for themselves. Vega also warned activists to stay focused on the singular issue of public education funding as they argued. If other issues (such as the focus on standardized testing in public schools, a common complaint of Massachusetts teachers) were introduced at the same time, said Vega, legislators would not be motivated to address funding. In order to be successful, they would need a consistent, singular message.

A central message of the forum was how both elected officials and community members could advocate for the measures to be passed. Taylor urged elected officials to write columns sharing their support for the legislation; she also pressured officials to talk to their colleagues and get them on board. Vega said that phone calls and personal letters to school committees (which are passing resolutions in support) and state representatives are especially helpful. He urged people to share personal narratives highlighting why school funding is crucial. “We know the data,” he said. “Tell us the stories.”

The stories will be stories of triumph in the face of increasingly limited resources-Massachusetts still has the most successful public education in the nation. But they will also be stories of lost opportunities, and they will leave people wondering about one thing: if schools accomplished this much with subpar funding, what could they have made happen with all the money they were owed?