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Gov. Baker's 2016 Budget Will Hurt The State's Poorest Children And Schools

Mary Battenfeld: "Budgets contain more than numbers. They tell the story of who we are and what we care about. Right now, the story features inadequate funding for 200,000 Massachusetts children who live in poverty. " Pictured: Gov. Charlie Baker smiles as he unveils his 2016 budget proposal during a news conference at the State House in Boston, March 4, 2015. (Charles Krupa/AP)
Mary Battenfeld: "Budgets contain more than numbers. They tell the story of who we are and what we care about. Right now, the story features inadequate funding for 200,000 Massachusetts children who live in poverty. " Pictured: Gov. Charlie Baker smiles as he unveils his 2016 budget proposal during a news conference at the State House in Boston, March 4, 2015. (Charles Krupa/AP)
This article is more than 6 years old.

Something’s wrong in the commonwealth of Massachusetts. Gov. Charlie Baker’s proposed Fiscal Year 2016 budget gives too little to our youngest and most disadvantaged residents.

The head of the Department of Children and Families seems to agree. In a statement that must have agitated even our preternaturally calm governor, Commissioner Linda Spears said she doesn’t have the money to take steps, such as hiring more social workers, needed to protect children in the state’s care.

Governor Baker points to the deficit and says we’re living beyond our means. Tell that to the child who slept last night in her family’s car and attends a Boston Public School facing cuts to everything from teachers, to buses, to school lunches.

But what about the 3 percent bump the budget gives to the Department of Children and Families, or the 2.4 percent increase in state education aid? It’s something, but it’s not enough.

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It would be like telling my seemingly insatiable 13-year-old, “I’m sorry you’re still hungry, but I gave you 2.4 percent more food this year than last.” The number of poor children in Massachusetts is growing, and if the budget doesn’t grow with them, those kids will suffer.

This budget gives the least to children who are growing the most — those in the critical birth to 5 years of age range. Our otherwise data-driven governor has apparently lost the files showing that investments in early care and education pay off. Overall, the Department of Early Education and Care gets $5 million less than last year. Grants for full-day kindergarten expansion are gone, putting at risk such programs and the children who need them. Families on waitlists for income-eligible child-care will continue to wait, since that item was not funded, either.

Many budget lines that, in past years, helped disadvantaged kids learn are empty. Empty, as in zero dollars for English Language Learners in Gateway Cities, and the hope it offered immigrant students in places like Brockton and Springfield. Empty, as in nothing for the Bay State Reading Institute, even though it has a proven track record in closing achievement gaps for English language learners and low-income students.

Instead, the Baker-Polito administration has dumped 11 educational opportunity programs into a small ($17.5 million) “Partnership Schools Network” pot of local aid.

Rather than being need-based, these grants, in a disturbing throwback to Victorian attitudes towards the poor, go to school districts that prove they are deserving. Priority is given to districts that outsource education to charters or other external operators and have the resources to fund the grant program in the future. Such provisos, as well as the red tape linked to them, mean that under-served children will benefit little from this fund. What we’ll get is a rush to the educational trough, with the strongest, rather than the hungriest, running off with the spoils.

The under-funding is particularly acute for Boston Public Schools. Boston is a high-needs district, with 80 percent of our students poor, 30 percent learning English and 20 percent with special needs. But the serving of educational aid the state gives Boston’s students is far from sufficient. As Boston’s interim superintendent, John McDonough told the state Foundation Budget Review Commission Boston’s Chapter 70 state education aid has increased 5 percent over the past 10 years. Yet the foundation budget, the minimum amount the state deems necessary to assure children get a “fair and adequate” education, increased by 36 percent. Imagine trying to pay a rent that increased from $1,000 to $1,360 with only an extra $50 each month, and you get some idea of the budgetary crisis facing Boston Public Schools.

Imagine trying to pay a rent that increased from $1,000 to $1,360 with only an extra $50 each month, and you get some idea of the budgetary crisis facing Boston Public Schools.

Many local leaders agree the Fiscal Year ‘16 budget’s meager, $20-per-pupil increase in K-12 education aid doesn’t offer enough. State Secretary of Education James Peyser admits, “some districts are going to be up and some are going to be down,” but is silent about what that means for equity. Rural and urban school systems that rely on “down” budget lines — such as charter school reimbursements, funds for homeless students and regional transportation — will be hurt. Districts with high numbers of students with disabilities also will be disproportionately affected, since the gap between the foundation budget and actual educational cost is notoriously wide for special needs students. A 2011 analysis found the foundation budget “understates core [Special Education] costs by about $1.0 billion.”

Governor Baker points to the deficit and says we’re living beyond our means. Tell that to the child who slept last night in her family’s car and attends a Boston Public School facing cuts to everything from teachers, to buses, to school lunches. That child can’t tighten her belt. Yet this budget squeezes against her growling stomach, while asking no sacrifice in the form of higher taxes from our wealthier citizens.

Budgets contain more than numbers. They tell the story of who we are and what we care about. Right now, the story features inadequate funding for 200,000 Massachusetts children who live in poverty. It’s the responsibility of our state government to revise that story, and the budget, to give those kids what they need.

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Mary Battenfeld Cognoscenti contributor
Mary Battenfeld is a Boston Public Schools parent and member of the faculty at Wheelock College.

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