State Sen. Jo Comerford represents 160,000 people living in 24 cities and towns in the Hampshire, Franklin, Worcester district in the Massachusetts Legislature.
Over the past weeks, I’ve received more than 300 emails, calls and social media messages from K-12 educators and families. More on top of that about early childhood education. And more still about public higher education.
Let me say first: Thank you. Thank you to educators and staff. To school committee members and municipal officials. To caregivers and students of our district — for the grit and grace you’ve demonstrated in abundance since early spring.
I see you as you grapple with unforgivably hard decisions without adequate state support or clarity. I see you as you care for those most at-risk in our communities. As you fight for the well-being of all our children. As you pace the floor with worry.
Your determination and relentless faith is embodied in email after email and call after call demanding that the state prioritize our youngest residents and the professionals who have dedicated their lives to their care and growth.
I ran for the state Senate so that I could push our state to go the distance when it comes to education funding and policy. And I believe, as I know many of you do, in the unparalleled promise of excellent and equitable public education.
The first bill I filed upon taking office, the Cherish Act, would require state reinvestment in public higher education, returning it to record-high levels to address years of cuts. And the proudest vote I’ve taken this session was voting for the Student Opportunity Act (SOA), made much stronger by western Massachusetts constituents who helped shape the bill to address the needs of our region.
As the 2020-21 school year gets underway amid a public health pandemic and associated economic crisis that continues to ravage our nation, you should have an update on some of the solutions I believe this moment demands.
All about the money
At the exact time our education sector needs unprecedented investment to weather the COVID-19 storm, the state is experiencing a multibillion dollar revenue shortfall and staring down a recession.
At the end of July, the Baker administration and the Legislature announced an agreement to fund Chapter 70 school aid based on FY20 levels with an additional $107 million for our schools on top of that. Though I advocated for this clarity and believe it’s an important foundation, the projected K-12 education funding level falls painfully short of the Student Opportunity Act’s mandate.
No similar state commitments have been made with respect to public higher education funding, even as the sector experiences the most intense funding shortfall in recent history. And early child care programs continue to struggle mightily with massive funding shortfalls and emerging gaps in availability, felt especially acutely in our region.
Let me be clear about some of the solutions I believe are needed:
- Raise revenue. We must remember that the state can and should find progressive ways to raise revenue fairly to support early education through higher education, resisting with all our might an austerity tailspin.
- Keep the promise of the SOA and uphold a state commitment to fund all added coronavirus-related costs in public schools. Over 130 school districts throughout the commonwealth are united in this demand and I joined with regional legislators to support the school committees’ demands.
- Ensure robust state investment in early education and public higher education to forestall layoffs and program cuts.
Health, safety, well-being
Funding is one piece of the puzzle, but with a pandemic it’s crucial to remember we’re not just talking about dollars and cents, we’re talking about our children’s health and emotional development. We’re talking about the health of educators who are an essential workforce, and also caregivers and community members.
There is a broad range of necessary state actions to account for these realities, including:
- Plan for early, K-12 and public higher education as sectors unto themselves, not the means by which other sectors thrive. As Gov. Baker’s Reopening Advisory Board formed, I expressed my deep concern about the absence of educators and school representation.
- Increase testing to include rapid testing. Decrease testing turnaround times. Bolster the work of tireless public health officials with more resources and begin the transformative work needed to rethink how best to create a 21st century, equitable public health infrastructure that can best support the education sector as well as community life in general.
- Begin publishing COVID-19 testing data (while maintaining privacy) for higher ed, school and early childhood providers, and provide reliable demographic and other community-specific data to identify inequities and disparities in the impact of the virus. Such information will help monitor the health of individual communities.
- Have a laser focus on equity and eradicate digital divides. Increase academic and mental wellness support for the most at-risk students.
- Be vigilant and willing to enforce all aspects of public health protocols designed to drive infection rates down and make it safer for essential workers, for all of us — even as we’re mindful of the public investment it’s going to take to support main street businesses, microenterprises and our region’s economy.
Love. Love for education and educators. Students and their families. All of them essential. Not the Hallmark kind of love, but rather the fierce, don’t-mess-with-me-or-our kids kind of love. At a time like this especially, it’s really the foundation of everything. It’s what will see us through.
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