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MTA responds to governor's budget proposals

Statement by MTA President Anne Wass

These are extraordinarily difficult times that pose serious challenges to public education and public higher education. We appreciate that Governor Deval Patrick's budget attempts to minimize reductions in preK-12 education, though we are concerned about the impact on students of the cuts that are being made, as well as the very steep reductions in funding for public higher education. Even for those line items that are "level-funded" -- that is, funded at the same dollar level as in FY09 -- the proposed budget amounts to a cut because the cost of providing services continues to rise. As legislators consider how to balance the budget during this recession, we will be reminding them that an educated work force is the best hope for our future economic prosperity.

On public higher education: House 1 would reduce state appropriations for public higher education campuses by 16.5 percent.

The MTA is strongly opposed to these cuts, which will hurt the quality of services we can provide to students at a time when record numbers are applying to our public colleges and the University of Massachusetts. The cuts will lead to a loss of staff, reductions in courses, declining learning and working conditions, upward pressure on tuition and fees for students and downward pressure on the compensation levels needed to attract and retain the highest-quality faculty and staff. Even before these cuts, Massachusetts ranked 49th in spending on public higher education as a percentage of income. The only possible relief lies in the fact that the federal stimulus package, if approved as currently proposed, will increase Pell grants for students.

On preK-12 education: House 1 reduces early childhood education by 5 percent. House 1 funds Chapter 70 at the same dollar level as in FY09, which would drive 153 districts below their foundation budget spending levels, according to DESE. It reduces spending in the remaining Department of Elementary and Secondary Education budget by 11.6 percent, including cuts in various grant programs, regional transportation and special education reimbursements. In addition, schools would be affected by proposed cuts in non-school local aid since municipalities may reduce education spending to fund other important services.

We are deeply concerned about any reductions in spending on preK-12 education at a time when students are already losing services due to the economic crisis. We join the governor in hoping that federal stimulus funds help to offset some or all of the state spending cuts in the coming year, but recognize that this spending is both uncertain and intended to be short-term. We support the governor's proposals to increase state and local revenues so that education funding is adequate and stable over the long term. Our students' futures and the future of our economy depend on Massachusetts maintaining high-quality public education.

On proposals for charter schools: House 1 would raise the charter school spending cap from 9 percent to 12 percent of district spending in the 50 lowest-performing districts. Schools opened under the higher cap would be required to serve a substantial portion of special education, English-language-learner and low-income students and those at risk of dropping out. Only charter schools with a track record of success with these student populations would be eligible to apply.

The MTA continues to oppose the state's system for funding charter schools because it drains money from the traditional public schools, hurting the students who attend them. Consequently, we oppose even a targeted increase in the cap on charter schools, particularly at a time when public school districts are experiencing major funding cuts.

The MTA supports a proposed change in the charter school law that requires charter schools to account for any surplus funds held at the end of the school year.

On health insurance premiums for state employees: The governor has again proposed a "tiered" premium split for state employees based on income that would increase health insurance costs for large numbers of public higher education faculty and staff.

The MTA continues to oppose the governor's plan to increase health insurance premium costs for state employees. (Note that this plan is included in the budget as a line item, not a law change, so the new tiered rates would have to be renewed in future years or they will expire at the end of FY10.) Increasing health insurance costs is, in essence, a pay cut. Massachusetts already spends less on higher education employee compensation than most comparable states, putting us at a competitive disadvantage.