Education perspectives offered by Pat Haddad

Patricia Haddad, the House Chair of the Joint Committee on Education spoke
to a crowd of over 75 at the Wellington School last Thursday night.    In
the crowd were a great many parents and elected officials from Belmont and
Arlington.

In a very down to earth and entertaining talk, Representative Haddad offered
a broad and informed perspective on the challenges of educating children
today.

She emphasized that we are not doing well enough at all in educating our
children for a competitive world economy.    In international comparative
testing we come out in the middle of the pack.   Other nations invest in
pre-school education, longer school days and set higher performance
standards, and as a result do, in fact, perform better.

She told the audience that she hoped Massachusetts would be able to take its
education system up to a higher level, but she was also cautious about the
fiscal challenges involved.

She pointed out to the audience that education already takes over a quarter
of the state’s budget and must compete with roads and bridges, public
transit, health care, elder services, law enforcement and other critical
priorities.   And she acknowledged that there is little appetite for
broad-based tax increases.

She talked with the enthusiasm about Governor Patrick’s “Readiness” task
force that is developing an education strategy which should include goals,
concrete recommendations and specific funding mechanisms.    The task force
subgroups are to prepare first drafts next month.  The report results might
lay a foundation for revenue proposals.

Belmont Superintendent Peter Holland identified full day kindergarten and
the reconstruction of the Wellington School as key initiatives for the
school system in the coming year.

Representative Haddad responded that the state’s new School Building
Administration was intended to function as an entirely non-political and
objective arbiter among competing requests for state construction aid.    But
she suggested that Belmont could take some hope in the fact that a
relatively small portion of the projects rated in a higher need category
than the Wellington were actually ready to go.

She expressed strong enthusiasm for full day kindergarten and noted that she
had committed additional funds to support full day kindergarten programs.
She encouraged the town to apply for a planning grant and take advantage of
the pilot program.

She also encouraged the town to consider applying for a demonstration grant
to test a longer school day, perhaps at the middle school level.   She said
that most systems taking advantage of the demonstration grant were lower
performing systems and that she would like to see a good system show that it
could become great through a longer day.

On an issue of perennial concern, Chapter 70 aid, she explained her
commitment to increasing allocations for all communities to a minimum of
17.5% of each community’s foundation budget.   She said that Belmont should
see another substantial increment of progress towards that goal in the
coming year.   She assured the crowd that the financial stresses felt in
Belmont and Arlington are being felt across the state.

On another financial issue – costs of student transportation to
out-of-district special education placements — she said that she was
looking to cut costs by efficiently routing children in combined transport
and by limiting charges by transport companies.   She said that she would
consider expanded aid for these costs only after efficiencies had been
achieved.

She affirmed her support for the MCAS test, noting that while it might be an
unnecessary burden for well-run districts like Belmont’s, it was absolutely
necessary to create accountability in districts that lack strong management.
 Especially when the state is proposing to commit ever larger funding for
local aid, there needs to be some accountability for results.  She noted
that any significant new funds would likely come with strings attached to
assure that they end up in the classroom.

Selectman Firenze and others raised the issues of unfunded mandates and
paperwork burdens.  Representative Haddad did signal that she expected to be
able to streamline the auditing of schools by the state.   Regarding the
English as a Second Language mandate, she said that the voters referendum
approval of the mandate made it politically hard to modify.

The event was arranged by State Representative Will Brownsberger in
collaboration with the Belmont Schools, all members of the Board of
Selectmen, all members of the School Committee and the Chair of Belmont’s
Warrant Committee.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.