Swift Work Helps Get Massachusetts a Budget
Five months into the fiscal year, exhausted Massachusetts lawmakers have completed all but a small piece of the state's fiscal 2002 budget.
The document, which was approved in an emergency legislative session Nov. 21, largely protects K-12 education spending, despite a slumping state economy.
Meanwhile, as Massachusetts became the last state to ratify a budget for the current fiscal year, several other states, including Alabama, Arizona, and Florida, were revisiting their spending plans and contemplating education budget cuts to reflect lower-than-projected revenues.
In Massachusetts, budget turmoil had sparked months of tension between the Republican governor and the Democratic-led legislature. In the end, the budget provided $3.2 billion for K-12 spending, an increase of $280 million over last year.
"Given the circumstances, it has been a very good year," said James Peyser, the chairman of the state board of education. "The legislature and governor have agreed to protect core areas of education spending."
Observers blame the delay on a various factors, including concerns over a faltering economy and matters of politics.
To help nudge legislators, acting Gov. Jane Swift submittted her own budget early this month, just days after lawmakers gave her a budget that proposed to chop $600 million in spending.
The first legislative budget plan also drew 175 line-item vetoes from Ms. Swift. Last week, the legislature overrode many of her vetoes. For example, it restored $3 million to pay for the expansion of all-day kindergarten, while also doubling— to just over $6 million—state spending for school breakfasts.
Also under last week's action, remedial programs that help students prepare for the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System will get $50 million, a $10 million increase from last year. Beginning with the class of 2003, all students must pass the mathematics and English portions of the MCAS in order to graduate
But a 1-year-old office designed to hold school districts accountable for students' MCAS performance, which had expected a $3.5 million budget, received only $2.5 million.
S. Paul Reville, who leads the Pew Forum on Standards-Based Reform, at Harvard University, and helped write the law creating the MCAS while serving as a state school board member, criticized that move. "We were already doing accountability on the cheap," he said. "It sends exactly the wrong message."
In the next few weeks, lawmakers are expected to take up on a supplemental budget. They will decide whether to pay for other programs sought by the governor, including the restoration of $12 million for adult basic education. Gov. Swift also wants to partially fund the state's payment to the New England Board of Higher Education. That would allow Massachusetts students to continue to take advantage of a college agreement that lets students in New England attend college in other states in the region, paying no more than 150 percent of in-state tuition.
Despite the governor's expressed commitment to keeping education a top priority, some school officials around the state say the long budget delay has already posed serious challenges.
Mark C. Smith, the superintendent of the 8,700-student Framingham schools, said that uncertainty over the state budget had affected adult English-as-a-second-language classes and the town's school choice program, which under a state law helps keep schools racially balanced. "Most of us are already spending money based on the projected budget we received in June," Mr. Smith said.
Bobbie D'Alessandro, the superintendent of the 7,600-student Cambridge district, said critical state aid that comes under desegregation funding for urban districts had also been reduced. The district had already received some funding and started planning for positions and programs that are used, among other purposes, to improve students' math and literacy skills.
"We started spending the money, and now we find out it is terminated," Ms D' Alessandro said. "This is the kind of work you need to do in urban districts. This came as a real shock. We're devastated. It's going to hit us very hard."
Elsewhere in the nation, education budgets took center stage in legislatures that have gone into special sessions this year to hash out budgets in a difficult economic climate, worsened by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and now officially labeled a recession.
In some states like Alabama, Arizona, and Florida, that could mean lean times for education.
An emergency budget session last week in Alabama brought education and business leaders to loggerheads as corporate interests fought Democratic Gov. Donald Siegelman's proposal to raise $160 million in business taxes so education spending would not be cut for the second straight year.
In Florida, educators have been closely watching to see if lawmakers follow through on proposed $300 million in cuts to public education programs. "Florida is not well-funded to begin with, so we are very worried about larger class sizes and layoffs down the road," said Maureen Dinnen, the president of the 122,000-member Florida Education Association. "Our districts are saying, 'We are already on the ropes.'"
School board members in Utah faced up to fiscal reality by cutting spending requests for school construction and teacher training, as part of efforts to address the state's $203 million gap.
Arizona legislators, meanwhile, entered the fourth week of a special session to address a $1.5 billion projected deficit over the next two years. One of the issues stalling talks is how much the state should spend on court- ordered aid for programs to help students who are learning to speak English.
Republican Gov. Jane Dee Hull urged lawmakers last week to overcome their differences and get a budget to her soon.
Vol. 21, Issue 15, Pages 19,23