Neil Clarke of the MTA outlined action steps to rally support for the bills.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — When the school gymnasium is full of excitement and noise for a rally, some children don't respond well.
They cover their heads and cry. But they might not if they had a paraprofessional with them.
A couple of years ago, the city of Pittsfield cut more than 30 paraprofessional positions from the school system's budget. Parent Starr Williams on Thursday asked that people envision each one of those paraprofessionals as being one child covering their heads and crying.
Williams is a Berkshire Community College student studying social work and will graduate in May. She will go on to Elms College, a private institution in Chicopee, in the fall but that will be nearly three times the cost. But Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams doesn't offer the program she wants and Westfield State University is a lengthier drive. The state school's tuition is around $8,000 but requires more time while the private school is around $32,000.
"It is between an immediate financial crisis or long-term debt," Williams said of her choices.
For those two reasons, Williams is supportive of the Cherish Act and the Promise Act. The former is aimed to bring an additional $500 million annually to the state's higher education system and the latter about $1 billion more in state support for pre-K through 12th grade through changes in the state's Chapter 70 education funding formula.
The bills have been filed based on the Foundation Budget Review Commission's findings in 2015. That study found that the costs of health insurance, teaching English language learners, low-income, and special education students have risen far faster than the state's support for education. It concluded that if the state had kept pace, preK-12 schools would have $1 billion more in funding and higher education another $500 million per year.
"The funding has not kept pace with the costs," said Brendan Sheran, the Berkshire County representative on the Massachusetts Teachers Association's Board of Directors.
The MTA is now joining local teachers' unions and political groups across the state to rally support around the passage of the bills. On Thursday, the Berkshires Educator Action Network and the local MTA held a "Fund Our Future" forum at the Berkshire Athenaeum. Sheran asked those in attendance to consider what they could do with those additional funds.
Pittsfield is estimated to have an additional $11 million should these bills be passed.
Superintendent Jason McCandless said that could go toward halting athletic fees that become a barrier for entry, longer school days and longer school years, universal preschool, more therapeutic services for the children who have dealt with trauma, further investment in vocational courses to make them affordable for residents of neighboring towns to attend, and more classes to allow students to follow passions.
"We would put it toward helping every single student be able to do more, be more, and live our their highest aspirations," McCandless said.
The superintendent compared the spending for education to spending for jails, saying the state spends more than $60,000 per year per individual in the House of Correction while spending an average of $16,000 per student. He feels if more had been spent in education, then there would be fewer individuals ending up in jail cells. He said the bills have the support of superintendents across the state.
Lee School Committee member Andrea Wadsworth would bolster the pay of teachers, add someone to work with blind and deaf children and lessen the reliance on the town's property taxpayers. Wadsworth said Lee recently cut a special education teacher and doubled class sizes.
"Our staff has been underpaid for the last 10 years. We have not kept pace," she said. "We would use the money to fund the foundation that supports those students."
Some 70 school committees across the state have voted in favor of resolutions calling for the implementation of the Foundation Budget Review Commission's recommendations.
Wadsworth is a supporter of the Berkshire Educational Task Force's effort to consolidate school districts and said she'd push for more shared services and new ways to educate and to govern that would better educate every student in the county. And she'd like to see a vocational school in South County
Alicia Stardja is a student at Berkshire Community College and both she and her daughter are visually impaired. She said there is a lack of large print, audiobooks, and other tools used to help. She said with the state underfunding education, those type of items aren't readily available and therefore the system is leaving people behind.
"We really need to look at how the lack of funding really impacts a child as a whole, beginning at pre-k and all the way to higher education," she said.
Those were just a few of the ideas of uses for the money. Overall, advocates say Berkshire County alone would see $30 million each year between the high schools and two colleges. The MTA argues that in order to keep with the state's constitutional provisions calling to adequately fund education, this is money the school's should have been getting all along.
"This is the tax dollars that we haven't gotten," said Neil Clarke of the MTA.
The MTA is joining with other groups throughout the state in support of the two bills. They're calling on supporters to write letters to lawmakers, to the committees handling the bills, and to spread awareness throughout the county. Clarke said supporters can't just attend a meeting like Thursday's -- they have to take action.
The forum included breaking into small groups to list possible ways the additionals funds could support education.
The Promise bill will get its first hearing on March 22, which state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier said is early compared to others.
She said there has been growing pressure to move the bill forward -- and lawmakers attempted to pass education funding reform last year but fell short on time.
"You know you have champions on this issue and we are going to keep fighting," Farley-Bouvier told those gathered.
But, the Pittsfield representative said it is more than just allocating money -- the state also has to raise revenue. She asked for the union's support on a new version of the Fair Share amendment that would place an additional tax on income made after the first $1 million earned.
"If we had enough money to work with, we'd be like yay, let's give everybody what they need. What we have in this state is a revenue problem," Farley-Bouvier said. "We also have to be partners in raising revenue in this commonwealth."
She also said the state has a "20th-century" tax system and there are plenty of other areas for revenue through Uber and Lyft, marijuana, and casino taxes.
State Rep. Paul Mark is the lead on the Cherish Bill for higher education. He shared a personal story about how when he first went to college, he left because he couldn't afford it. He then went to work for the phone company, which he noted was unionized, and the benefits included tuition assistance. He ended up graduating and moving up, which he said shows that he had the talent and drive and it was only the lack of money that held him back.
But his wife is trying to pay off student debt to the tune of $750 a month. He said that is $750 they aren't saving for retirement, $750 that isn't being spent in the local economy, and $750 that isn't being saved for a family.
"Higher education is an opportunity that needs to be available to everybody," Mark said.
The 2nd Berkshire representative had chaired a subcommittee on student debt to tackle the issue. And now the Cherish Act is a bill he believes will make a huge difference. But while the local groups know he supports it, he's asking for letters and support to help him sway others in the State House.
"I want to be able to say, see these 100 letters I got, this is why I care about it," Mark said.
Education funding is expected to be a hotly debated topic, and highly prioritized topic, in Boston this year. Gov. Charlie Baker has put forth a budget that calls for phasing in the commission's recommendations but other lawmakers have different opinions on how long it will take to implement.
The coalition of groups in support of the bills is now looking to keep the pressure on in hopes to get the Legislature to pass massive reforms to the Chapter 70 education funding formula.
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