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Wachusett teacher offers perspective from the frontlines at Feb. 25 hearing

Robert Becker Bob Becker testified on February 25, 2014 at one of two hearings on the FY15 state budget.

Testimony of Robert Becker
Feb. 25, 2014
Before the Joint Committee on Ways and Means
University of Massachusetts, Amherst
FY15 State Budget Education and Local Aid

Good afternoon, Vice Chairman Kulik, Senator Candaras and members of the committee. Thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today on behalf of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

My name is Bob Becker, and I am a high school science teacher at Wachusett Regional High School in Holden.

The Wachusett Regional School District consists of five towns in Central Massachusetts, and we have nearly 8,000 students enrolled in our schools. When I started teaching at Wachusett in the 1980s, we had a wide variety of opportunities and offerings for our students nearly all of which have now been eliminated or come with a fee. Since our students often live many miles from their schools, the district used to offer late buses so students could stay after school for academic help or to participate in school activities. Those buses were cut from our budget years ago. Furthermore, whether it’s playing basketball, singing in the Jazz Choir or being a member of the Science Seminar, every extracurricular activity now comes with a fee often hundreds of dollars a year per activity per student. Many of my students who would have been very involved in school activities in past years now go home after school because they cannot get a ride or they cannot afford the fee.

Like our colleagues around the Commonwealth, the educators in the Wachusett system have worked with the school district as much as possible. Even though we have negotiated salary freezes, furlough days and health insurance changes, and even with my Wachusett colleagues now spending hundreds or thousands of dollars a year of their own money to buy supplies that used to be part of the school budget, it’s not nearly enough.

At the high school, the music department’s budget has been cut by nearly 75 percent over the last several years, while the number of students enrolled has doubled. My math colleagues now have less than 25 cents per student per year to buy the materials and supplies they need. In my own classroom, I now have less than 1 cent per student per day to teach 21st-century science skills. As a career educator, I can tell you that the financial situation has never been worse, and I urge you to consider every possible opportunity to fund both education and local aid.

The MTA is pleased that House 2 increases Chapter 70 aid over FY14 spending by 2.1 percent, ensuring that every district’s foundation budget is fully funded. House 2 also proposes increases in educational grant programs, higher education and early education.

In addition to keeping all districts at foundation levels of spending, as required by law, the governor's proposal includes a new section that is long overdue: The revival of the Foundation Budget Review Commission in Outside Section 12.

The Chapter 70 funding language contains an important provision that would include all preK students now attending public schools in district foundation budgets.

"As a career educator, I can tell you that the financial situation has never been worse, and I urge you to consider every possible opportunity to fund both education and local aid.”
– Bob Becker,
high school science teacher

The governor also proposes to invest more in the state's Gateway Cities, providing $1.25 million to help close the achievement gap in Gateway districts, including funding for career academies — which are centers to help students access alternative pathways to graduation — and funding for financial literacy programs. MTA is supportive of the Gateway Cities’ programs, as they target needed assistance to some of the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable areas. Many students in schools in our Gateway Cities face serious challenges, yet local districts may not have the resources to help all students succeed. Gateway Cities’ programs help districts to assist more students.

We note, however, that non-education local aid is level-funded in this proposed budget, which is a concern not only for city and town budgets but for school budgets, since such aid is an important source of school funding.

The MTA strongly supports the governor's inclusion of Outside Section 12 of the budget. The language included in Section 12 of House 2 is nearly identical to MTA's priority legislation, H457 and S207, An Act to Revive the Foundation Budget Review Commission, filed by the chairs of the Joint Committee on Education, Representative Alice Peisch and Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz. The legislation is co-sponsored by 81 of your colleagues.

Like the legislation, the governor’s budget language would reconstitute the Foundation Budget Review Commission, established in the Education Reform Act of 1993 to ensure that the foundation budget formula is reviewed at least once every four years and updated, if necessary. It would require the Legislature to be in control of the process and the outcome, and the commission would be chaired by the Joint Education Committee’s co-chairs. The governor’s language requires the commission to complete its work by Dec. 31, 2014.

The charge of the commission is to determine the programs and services necessary to achieve the Commonwealth’s educational goals, as well as to determine whether there are efficiencies that can be made and whether resources can be used in a more effective manner. Unlike in previous proposals, this commission would review relevant reports and data only and would not undertake an independent cost study.

MTA urges that this outside section be included in the House Ways and Means FY15 budget.

My colleagues and I are very appreciative of the increase in higher education funding in the current year’s budget and we are pleased that the governor has proposed an increase in higher education funding for next year as well.

Nevertheless, I would like to echo the comments of the higher education presidents that the governor’s proposal would result in increased fees for our higher education students. We find this particularly troubling, as it goes against the agreement that was made last year for a two-year freeze on tuition and fees. This affects many of our members particularly those with children who are attending or would like to attend our higher ed. schools. My own daughter, who is a student here at UMass, has told me that many of her classmates are just barely able to pay their school bills as it is.

The governor proposes to increase early education funding by 9 percent over FY14, including increases in funding for kindergarten expansion grants and funding for an additional 1,700 slots for low-income children to attend preschool.

The MTA supports these increases for programs for our youngest children, and we look forward to continuing to work with the Legislature this session to improve early education in the Commonwealth, whether in our public schools or in private early education centers. In particular, we ask for your support of H477 and S223, MTA priority legislation that would begin to address the inequities in our early education system by focusing on improving teacher quality.

I have included fact sheets on H457 and S207 with copies of my testimony, along with fact sheets on H477 and S223.

Thank you for your consideration of our views.