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Thousands rally for education funding

Trea Lavery
Thousands rally for education funding
Students rally in the State House Trea Lavery photo

In a full day of lobbying and action in the Massachusetts State House and on Boston Common, thousands of activists from across the state came together Thursday in support of the Promise and Cherish Acts, two bills which would fund public K-12 and higher education in the state.

Hundreds of those activists, wearing the red shirts of the Fund Our Future campaign, a coalition of statewide activist groups, began the afternoon by visiting state senators and representatives around the State House to advocate for the two bills.

“The implications for Boston are huge,” said Ruby Reyes, executive director of the Boston Education Justice Alliance. “We have a large population of low-income students, special education students and English language learners. This year we have a huge budget deficit in our schools, and this would help funnel some of that money back into the public education funding that’s been shrinking in our state.”

The rally was organized by Mass Teachers Association, the Massachusetts chapter of the American Federation of Teachers and the Boston Teachers Union. Two smaller rallies were held simultaneously at the city halls in Springfield and Pittsfield.

Meanwhile, on the third floor of the building, college students were participating in a sit-in outside the offices of House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka. In order to advocate for the Debt Free Future Act, which would guarantee a debt-free public higher education for Massachusetts residents, the students said they would continue their vigil outside the offices until they achieved a meeting with Spilka.

“We’re protesting against the fact that the government has continuously divested from higher education,” said Irina Costache, a UMass Amherst student who participated.

Both the Fund Our Future campaigners and the sit-in participants joined together for a “People’s Hearing” in which they explained to John Adams impersonator Giovanni Alabiso — who appeared in period costume — what had happened to the state’s education system since the time of the founding fathers.

Following the hearing, interfaith leaders led the red-shirted demonstrators in a march through the building to the offices of Spilka, DeLeo, Governor Charlie Baker and Education Committee Chair Alice Peisch, none of whom has come out in support of the Promise Act, which was filed by Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz and Reps. Mary Keefe and Aaron Vega.

A legislative Foundation Budget Review Commission in 2015 issued a report of its findings that the commonwealth is underfunding public K-12 education by $1 billion to $2 billion a year. The Promise Act would increase education funding by $1 billion. Gov. Baker’s bill would increase funding by $500 million, phased in over a seven-year period.

Baker’s Education Secretary Jim Peyser and House Education Committee co-Chair Alice Peisch has criticized the Promise Act for providing too much money to districts such as Boston, which they say has sufficient revenue to increase school funding. Mayor Martin Walsh, who notes that most of the state’s Chapter 70 education funding allocated to Boston is going to charter schools, supports the Promise Act.

In the State House, the interfaith leaders led marchers to the offices of legislative leadership, chanting loudly outside their offices while representatives of the group delivered letters to the politicians. The faith leaders read statements at each office.

“All children in the Commonwealth deserve well-funded schools. We are here to say no more sacrificing our children on the altar of inequality and underfunded school budgets,” said Rabbi David Jaffe of Brockton Interfaith Community. “I believe we have the power to pass a better world down to our children.”

The day finished with a rally outside on the Boston Common, where thousands created a sea of red shirts, shouting and blowing “Fund Our Future”-logoed whistles to show their support.

MTA President Merrie Najimy, BTU President Jessica Tang and AFT President Beth Kontos.
Trea Lavery photo

“We stand unified and strong, in front of the statue of Horace Mann, the founder of our public education system, to remind our elected officials that education is the cornerstone of democracy,” said Beth Kontos, president of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. “But that cornerstone is crumbling without equitable funding.”

During the rally, students, faculty and staff from public colleges and universities spoke on behalf of the Cherish Act, which would increase funding for public higher education by $500 million a year and freeze college tuitions and fees, which have increased steeply in recent years.

“One of my students was living with no heat last winter,” said UMass Boston Economics professor Marlene Kim, president of the faculty and staff union. “Students are going hungry. Some can’t afford food. They can’t afford to take classes. They’re dropping out.”

Yawu Miller contributed to this article.