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Education officials ask legislators  to OK $550M  for education

GREENFIELD — State education officials urged legislators at a budget hearing Tuesday to follow through on Gov. Deval Patrick’s call to increase education spending by $550 million next fiscal year — an effort they said would boost state support for Greenfield Community College and dramatically improve the academic experience at all levels.

Patrick’s education proposal would improve early education and literacy rates, better prepare high school students for college and make public education more affordable, state officials told members of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Ways and Means, convened in the Greenfield Community College Dining Commons.

But officials said that education reform is only possible if legislators approve Patrick’s call to revise taxes — which includes increasing the income tax to 6.25 percent, cutting the sales tax to 4.5 percent and doubling personal exemptions.

“While incremental funding increases are always welcome and appreciated … it will never be enough to get the job done in education,” said Secretary of Education Matthew Malone, who was appointed to the post in December. “In the absence of new revenues, we will simply not be able to meet the needs of our youngest and oldest learners.”

As part of the annual budget process, the hearing was one of several held across the state and comes at a time when automatic federal spending cuts are scheduled to take place Friday and could affect state spending in many ways.

Officials estimated that there could be $27 million in education cuts at the K-12 level because of the federal budget cuts, along with other reductions in federally funded preschool programs and college research grants.

The governor’s proposed budget calls for an extra $152 million to make higher education more affordable. The burden of paying for education has shifted to students and their families, something that needs to be changed if the state wants to depend on its graduates entering the local workforce, officials said.

That amount includes a $20 million increase in community college spending, which would give GCC $1 million more than it did last year.

And a $116 million increase to fund the MASSGrant Scholarship program is also long overdue, officials said. The scholarships only cover 8 percent of the total tuition and fees for its recipients, compared to the 80 percent it covered in 1988.

“It’s time we recognize that institutions, like this one (GCC) are absolutely vital to the future of the state and (Gov. Patrick) has set forth a bold agenda with which we can achieve that goal,” said Richard Freeland, commissioner of higher education.

The budget proposal would put forward $226 million in increased local aid to help districts pay for K-12 education. It calls for $131 million in early education reforms that would allow more students to attend preschool and become proficient readers by the third grade. And it would improve the scope of programs that teach English as a second language.

Legislators stressed their desire for officials to improve students’ college readiness at the K-12 level so that they don’t have to take as many introductory level college courses as they do now.

Sure to factor into the budget discussions is the impending “sequestration” — a series of automatic federal spending cuts scheduled to go into effect Friday.

Alan Ingram, deputy commissioner for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said that it is still too early to tell the specific impact the cuts will have. Malone said that any cuts would likely go into effect this July 1.

Ingram estimated that his department would see $27 million in cuts, including $13 million in special education.

About 1,100 young children enrolled in the early education program Head Start could see services reduced, said Malone.

And at the college level, 800 fewer low-income students will get work study jobs while as many as 12,000 could lose money for research projects, said Freeland.

Legislators urged the department to be more transparent about its budget requests. Sen. Patricia Jehlen, D-Somerville, asked officials to produce documents that clearly state the real impact represented by each line item.

“I think the public will support the vision,” she said. “The question is, will they support the revenue?”

Malone said that the process is already under way. The department plans to release later this week documents that will break down the information by town. People will be able to see exactly what the education and transportation investments will produce, he said.

The hearing was one of eight held across the state while the House drafts its budget proposal during the next two months.

The Senate will complete its budget proposal by the end of May. Then, a conference committee of both House and Senate members will meet in June to come up with a compromise budget to send to the governor’s office by July.

Rep. Stephen Kulik — a local legislator from Worthington who co-chaired the joint committee — has arranged for a budget hearing to be held in western Massachusetts the past four years, but this was the first time it was held at GCC.

GCC President Robert Pura welcomed committee members in a 10-minute address that discussed the school’s history and merits, and called for the continuing funding of public education.

You can reach Chris Shores at:
cshores@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 264

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