On October 30, I testified before the Joint Committee on Education in support of S. 2388 and H. 3567, An Act to provide a sustainable future for rural schools, which I filed in partnership with Representative Blais. These are my prepared remarks:
After an in-depth review, including extensive research, consultations with experts, and multiple public hearings, the Commission on the Long-term Fiscal Health of Rural School Districts came to a stark conclusion:
“Rural school districts in Massachusetts struggle with a set of challenges that have left many students with less than they need, and deserve.”
That’s why we’re here. To ask the committee to use our authority as legislators to allow students from every corner of the Commonwealth to have the same opportunities to learn and grow and be successful.
I am proud to offer testimony in support of S. 2388 and H. 3567, An Act to provide a sustainable future for rural schools, which I filed in partnership with Representative Blais.
The Commission’s findings must be a wake-up call for all of us. The math is brutal and can no longer be ignored:
As enrollment declines, costs do not fall commensurately. To avoid deficits, cuts must be made to core and enrichment programs. To special education. To honors classes. To counseling, usually to enrichment and elective programs. To health serivces. To all after-school opportunities.
Strapped local governments are faced with impossible choices. The pressures are immense, and inescapable.
The Commission found rural schools get caught in a downward spiral that puts our students further and further behind:
[S]ome rural high schools have cut most of their AP courses, business programs, arts offerings, social studies electives, and world languages. Middle schools have lost their team structures or eliminated their math and reading support teachers, losing interdisciplinary learning opportunities and the ability to create supportive community within the school. Elementary schools have lost reading and math support teachers as well as reading and math coaches. Support specialist positions from across grade levels such as adjustment counselors, nurses, and librarians have also been eliminated. As courses, programs, and extra-curricular activities are eliminated, students leave these schools via school choice or to attend charter or private schools. When this occurs, enrollments decline further, funding is reduced further, and a self-perpetuating cycle of decline results.
This Committee should be rightfully proud of the Student Opportunity Act, which transformed school funding in the Commonwealth and is strengthening opportunities to learn and thrive for many — but not all — Massachusetts students. I was proud to vote yes on that bill. And now I ask that the Committee finish the job by addressing the unique needs and opportunities of rural school districts.
However, the increased funding resulting from the SOA primarily benefits districts with high levels of low-income, special education, and English learner students. These are not generally rural districts.
In fact, the Commission found that of the 41 rural districts, 27 were projected to receive no increase in Chapter 70 aid in FY23 due to the SOA. The average benefit to rural districts was just $34,278 and their total benefit is 0.39% of the state’s $360 million plus dollars in additional aid for FY23.
The bill, based on the Commission’s recommendations, takes a comprehensive approach to the needs of our rural schools. The bill includes provisions aimed at:
- transportation costs, a particular hardship in rural areas;
- special education, including special education transportation;
- Rural Schools Aid;
- skyrocketing health care costs;
- the unique challenges of regional districts, including start-up costs for newly regionalized districts or shared services;
- construction and capital costs, including ways MSBA can assist communities with the costs of regionalization when it requires closing, reusing, or retrofitting school buildings.
You will hear testimony from many people directly affected by the shortfall in rural school funding, including students, faculty, school district leaders, local officials and others. I ask that you receive their testimony with the urgency Rep. Blais and our rural colleagues feel when it comes to making real, concrete gains this session on rural schools. We cannot leave them behind again.