Governor Baker’s budget proposal does little for schools, a lot for healthcare
Provisions to lessen impact of ACA repeal, education funding falls short of improvement
Governor Charlie Baker outlined a budget proposal last week that many said made strides in addressing health care needs under the new presidential administration but fell short of alleviating the budget stress of beleaguered public education institutions.
The budget would increase the districts’ elementary and secondary education aid, known as Chapter 70 aid, by about $20 per pupil. This may not make much of a dent: It cost Boston about $18,372 to educate a student in the 2014-2015 school year, the latest data available from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. In comparison, that year Cambridge spent $27,569 per pupil, while the highest-spending district allotted $30,505 per pupil and no district spent less than $10,400 per pupil.
“Our shared commitment to funding local schools has led to an all-time high in Chapter 70 education funding,” Baker said.
According to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, Baker’s proposal raises Chapter 70 aid only by about 2 percent, roughly enough to match inflation rates, not rising costs. The percent increase is smaller than that given in the past few years’ budgets, MassBudget states.
“[This budget] wouldn’t allow for significant improvements in class sizes or wraparound services or making sure we have all we need,” Noah Berger, MassBudget president, told the Banner.
Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz has proposed a bill that would increase the state’s determination of what counts as a minimally adequate budget for schools, the so-called “foundation budget.” Once the state calculates the foundation budget, it supplies a portion, requires a municipal contribution based on perceived local ability to pay, then makes up the difference. Chang-Diaz co-chaired a bipartisan review committee that in 2015 announced that the state’s budgeting estimates understated costs incurred by schools by about $1 billion a year. In part the shortfall is due to rising employee health benefit costs and a trend of underestimating the level of special education spending needed, the committee said.
“When you factor in inflation, the governor’s proposal would put us 5.5 percent below funding levels from 15 years ago,” Chang-Diaz said in a statement to the Banner. “A bipartisan, state-commissioned panel — that included appointees from his administration — unanimously declared last session that we are falling over $1 billion short on our commitment to public education every year. Instead of addressing it in a meaningful way, the Governor has kicked the can down the road one more year.”
Both MassBudget and the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation say that the Baker’s proposed 0.1 percent increase in early education funding is unlikely to affect waitlists for subsidized childcare, which MTF estimates at 30,000 children.
Students at the state’s public colleges and universities increasingly are burdened by debt, according to a recent MassBudget report. As state support has declined, campuses have made up the difference in part by hiking mandatory student fees. Since 2001, the number of students taking out loans to attend four-year public colleges in Massachusetts increased by 39 percent and their cumulative amount of debt was 55 percent higher, according to the MassBudget report.
Zac Bear, interim director of Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts (PHENOM), says greater funding is sorely needed.
“The universities are severely underfunded,” Bear told the Banner. “There’s been a 31 percent cut in state funding for students since 2001 and that’s with a $4,000 increase per year in tuition and fee costs across universities and campus. It’s incredibly unsustainable. … I know many students who have to take semesters off due to financial need.”
Rates of student homelessness and food insecurity have been rising at state colleges and universities. At the 29 state colleges and universities, 45 percent of administrators reported a rise in student homelessness over the previous year and 38 percent reported a rise in students without consistent access to food, according to The Boston Globe. Insufficient financial aid, rising costs of living and high student debt burdens are contributors, administrators said.
Baker’s allotment falls short of UMass’s funding request by about $30 million, and about $10 million below requests from state universities and community colleges, Bear said. Beyond that, there is a large deficit remaining.
Berger said the governor’s proposal will not make higher education more affordable. One thing could, however: the Fair Share Amendment, also known as the “Millionaire’s Tax,” which is expected to pass by ballot referendum in 2018 and could provide an estimated $2 billion annually to public transportation and education.
“That would allow for significant process in making higher education more affordable, improving the quality of K-12 schools and also expand access to early education,” Berger said.
While many expressed doubts that Baker’s FY2018 plan would advance public education, the governor drew praise for his health care vision. With the federal government moving to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Baker’s plan would put more employers on the hook for providing health coverage for their employees.
The governor’s proposal would put a cap on the amount providers could charge for service and revive and enhance a piece of “Romneycare” legislation that financially penalized firms that did not supply sufficient healthcare coverage. Firms with 11 or more employees would be fined $2,000 for each worker not on the firm’s health insurance, and the state would use this revenue to support the MassHealth’s growing enrollment. A similar provision under Romneycare was repealed when the Affordable Care Act introduced its own set of penalties for employers failing to cover their workers.
“The centerpiece of this budget is a smart, common-sense proposal to address the problem of costs for employee health care being shifted from employers onto state government,” Berger said in a statement. “Fixing that problem should create a more sustainably balanced budget and reduce the pressure for budget cuts that could harm people and communities across the Commonwealth.”
In April, the Massachusetts House drafts its Fiscal Year 2018 budget proposal, and the state Senate follows suit in May. In June, both legislative groups gather to reconcile their budgets after which a final plan is presented to the governor for his signature. The next fiscal year starts on July 1, 2017.