By Meghan Tench, Globe Staff
2/9/04, p. B4
About 1,400 teachers have lost their jobs, class sizes have grown so large that they’re hard to control, and some students are paying high fees for sports, activities, and transportation.
Those are the effects of the state’s $527 million cut to local aid during the past two years, and a portion of that cut affected education, according to a state teachers union report released yesterday. The cuts are chipping away at the progress the state’s schools have made since the Education Reform Act of 1993, the report contends.
The authors of the report said they did not have a figure for education cuts during the past two years.
News reports have indicated that the state cut basic education aid last year by $150 million for local school districts and also reduced MCAS preparation funds from $50 million to $10 million. This year, Governor Mitt Romney is proposing $72 million in basic education aid, a 2.3 percent increase, and an additional $40 million to create various new programs for school districts.
The statewide look at the cuts was compiled by several teacher and administrative groups, including the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the Massachusetts Municipal Association.
Many school leaders today say they are barely coping with last year’s budget crisis and are girding for next year’s cuts. Some question whether it’s possible to give their students a basic education.
“We are not able to provide the same quality of education to our students,” said Superintendent Peter A. Kurzberg of Braintree. “We have taken a giant step backwards.” Facing a $2 million budget shortfall this year, Kurzberg was forced to lay off 56 teachers, charge student activity and transportation fees, and reduce spending on textbooks. With dwindling resources, he said, it is unrealistic to expect students to meet the higher standards outlined under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
State education officials yesterday argued that that the report focuses on too short a time span. While local aid has been reduced over the two-year period, overall education spending has increased by 6.7 percent, the officials said. The spending increase, however, comes from a variety of sources, including municipal reserve funds and overrides of Proposition 2 1/2 tax limits.
“We certainly share their concerns and recognize that any budget cut hits a school district very hard,” said Heidi B. Perlman, spokeswoman for the Department of Education. “It is somewhat unfortunate that the couple of years they chose to analyze were the two most difficult financial years the state has faced in a very long time. Every agency faced a hit, the economy really tanked, and everyone felt the crunch.”
Still, those on the front lines say, the reductions undercut their mission.
At the Gill-Montague Regional School District, 19 teachers were let go, and the district was forced to combine grades in the elementary schools. For example, first and second grade is held in one classroom with one teacher, and the same goes for third and fourth grades. Some students now spend free periods running errands for teachers.
The report was released a month before the Supreme Judicial Court is expected to rule on whether the state is adequately funding K-12 education, even after 10 years of increased education spending.
Researchers surveyed school superintendents statewide about the impact of the budget cuts in their districts. There were responses from 187 superintendents, a little more than half of the state’s school districts.
The school districts that responded reported eliminating 1,400 teaching jobs during the past two years.
In addition, 153 districts reported average class size data. Of those, 59 percent said class sizes have increased, 18 percent said classes have decreased, and 24 percent said the sizes have remained the same. Many school districts, including Boston, Springfield, and Haverhill, also reported closing schools, cutting programs such as tutoring for the MCAS exam, and raising fees.
In Arlington, the full-day kindergarten charge rose from $500 last school year to $1,500 this year.
“Our children deserve better,” said Paul Schlichtman, who heads the Massachusetts Association of School Committees and serves on the Arlington board.
But Perlman said there are signs of a turnaround. The governor has proposed no education cuts in his state budget package, keeping funding level. “At a time when the state is still facing a difficult economy, level funding is not bad,” Perlman said. “The governor made difficult decisions crafting his budget, but he has made clear education is a priority.”