Wednesday, December 7, 2016
Governor's Midyear Budget Cuts Include $12 Million From Education

At the end of a year of bruising fights over school education, a new round of cuts has come down from on high — even as Massachusetts' general funding of local schools will rise slightly in the current fiscal year, which began on July 1.

Late Tuesday, Gov. Charlie Baker announced $98 million in budget cuts he is authorized to make to cover anticipated shortfalls under Section 9C of state finance law. The cuts will take effect unless the state Legislature decides to enact a supplementary budget.

The largest “9C cuts” by far will take millions from MassHealth’s fee-for-service payments, the Office of Travel and Tourism and the state police.

But lower down you find almost $12 million in cuts to education, schools and other programs supporting young people. Massachusetts’ Department of Elementary and Secondary Education was hit hardest.

In June, the governor vetoed more than $2.1 million in DESE line items for individual districts. Those would fund, among other things, school anti-addiction programs in Barnstable and on Martha’s Vineyard, the appointment of school resource officers in Hull and Cohasset and individual grants to districts like Everett and Fall River.

The Legislature voted to override those cuts, but with this week’s $1.88 million 9C action, Baker’s administration has unilaterally made many of the same cuts again.

A program to teach English over the summer in the state’s high-immigrant “Gateway Cities” like Holyoke and Lowell was given $2 million in the Legislature’s general budget. The governor has cut its funding almost in half.

And a host of smaller education programs will now lose all their state funding, including Reach Out and Read, a nonprofit program that has received about $1 million annually since 2012 to help pediatricians and nurses provide books and encourage reading, especially to low-income families, and the Massachusetts Tech Collaborative’s program to promote computer-science education in public schools, which had been funded at $1.7 million.

The Read Out and Read cut will mean that "200,000 kids in the Commonwealth are not going to be able to get books from their pediatric clinician next year, 60 percent of whom are going to have some trouble learning to read," said Marilyn Augustyn, a Boston Medical Center pediatrician who serves as Massachusetts medical director for the state's Reach Out and Read coalition.

Augustyn said the program has proved its effectiveness over the 25 years she's worked there, and costs just $48 per child for five years of free books: "I can't say enough how much difference this program can make. It's a huge loss."

Perhaps the most surprising 100-percent cut affects Massachusetts’ “Innovation Schools” program. The 57 schools so designated work a bit like in-district charter schools: They’re given more autonomy over their curriculum, budget and staff and have traditionally received a blend of federal, state and philanthropic support for their efforts.

But the $350,000 state line item that Gov. Baker cut this week goes to planning and implementation for those schools.

State Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, who chairs the joint committee on education, called the governor's 9C cuts unnecessary, given that the state is just 0.2 percent behind its benchmark for the year, and said they smack of "overeagerness" in the governor's office.

And she said the cuts to education are "flat-out confounding."

"The governor's spent the last several months publicly extolling the power of charter schools for autonomy and their ability to innovate," Chang-Diaz said. "A few weeks later, he is completely eliminating a line item that enables district schools to adopt those very same tools."

Chang-Diaz added that she will advocate for reinstating funding for innovation schools in a supplementary budget, as well as for targeted assistance for underperforming schools.

In a letter accompanying his July vetoes, Gov. Baker highlighted the fact that this FY17 budget increases the state’s general “Chapter 70” aid to local schools by 2.6 percent over the previous year, to $4.6 billion. These cuts won’t change that.

But 2017 may not be an ordinary year when it comes to money for education.

The costly debate over the charter cap revealed deep wells of support for cash-strapped public schools, and turned education funding into a hot topic for statewide debate.

This year's budget, for example, continues the controversial pattern of failing to reimburse district schools for funds lost to charters — and by an unprecedented margin of $57 million.

And at a “Suburban Coalition” meeting in Newton last week, community leaders renewed their push to increase the “Foundation Budget,” the threshold amount that the state requires districts to spend per student. (Experts have long criticized the existing Foundation Budget for understating the cost of special education and teacher benefits — and last year a state commission agreed.)

So the governor’s 9C cuts to education -- though relatively small -- emerge in a different political climate.

And the budgetary tug-of-war between the governor and the Legislature isn’t over.

Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo and Senate President Stan Rosenberg both took to Twitter Wednesday to propose passing a supplementary budget to restore some cut funding and support the Commonwealth’s neediest citizens. Whether students will be included in that group isn’t yet clear.

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