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The year of living painfully
Bay State budget cuts promise hard choices and civic suffering. Nevertheless, State House pols continue to play fiscal games.

NOW THAT IT’S clear that state legislative leaders must still cut roughly $1 billion from the Massachusetts state budget — even if new revenues totaling $1 billion are found — it seems almost clichéd to talk about the pain the cuts will inflict. To do so hearkens back to the cries of "blood on the streets" and "eating our seedcorn" that were all too common during the state’s last fiscal crisis 12 years ago, when program advocates and social-services providers decried the drastic ramifications of almost any cuts. At that time, such slogans were viewed as ideological posturing. But then, as now, the rhetoric describes an important fact: cuts have consequences.

You don’t have to be a close observer of the process to notice that the politically well-connected are not the ones who will suffer. Plans for the $800 million waterfront convention center remain on track — even after the House voted to establish a commission to examine the long-term viability of that white elephant. The same goes for the Quinn Bill, which grants generous raises to police officers who earn advanced degrees (from an associate’s on up) and costs the state roughly $100 million annually. The House continues to stock the court system with its own people — in opposition to the wishes of chief administrative justice Barbara Dortch-Okara, who manages the trial courts. And no one has tried to crop the system mandating the presence of paid police details at construction sites — a practice that runs into the millions. No, the losers here will be our most vulnerable citizens: students, those who must rely on the courts to gain justice, poor children, and people with AIDS.

There’s no question about it: state revenue is falling sharply — it currently stands at almost $400 million, even with the legislature’s revised downward estimates. While the House, the Senate, and Governor Jane Swift haggle over the details — Swift, for instance, sees the House proposal as a "draft" — there's no way around the fact that the state will have to make serious cuts. Here’s a glance at the changed landscape ahead.

K-12 education

Improving education is central to most politicos these days — especially in view of the education-reform program the state embarked upon in 1993 (a key part of which is the controversial mandatory MCAS exam). Although it looks as if local aid for education funding will get by unscathed, about $100 million in education cuts (the number may change as legislators fight over education funding this week) remain on the table. Those dollars will come from the state’s pot of money for education grants, which is used to fund all sorts of common-sense programs designed to offset the deprivations of the public-school system.

Still, education will lose. One of the likely casualties will be $18 million in state-grant funding to reduce class sizes in grades K-3. The money is used by school systems to hire enough teachers to hold class size below 20 students, which, educators have found, enhances classroom performance among young children. What this means is that students in these grades will find themselves enrolled in classes of up to 30 students. Meanwhile, some teachers, who would have otherwise taught in a system of smaller classes, will lose their jobs. The exact number is hard to determine. Boston received almost $4 million in aid to reduce class sizes in fiscal year (FY) 2002; Cambridge, almost $300,000; and Somerville, $340,000.

Another casualty that should raise eyebrows is the elimination of $30 million from MCAS remediation funding, down from $50 million. Of course, the MCAS, a statewide test administered to several groupings of students, most importantly 10th graders, is a key element of the much-ballyhooed education-reform initiative. Which raises the question, why is this money vulnerable? Well, it’s vulnerable because, while the MCAS program is very much part of education reform (which is paid for with local aid), making sure that all school systems — particularly poor and urban ones — have the resources to help every student pass the test is not. During the great debate over the mandatory-testing requirement, one of the arguments put forth by MCAS proponents was that students requiring extra help to pass the test would get it, mostly through after-school remediation training. (Arguing two years ago against the claim that the test was "punitive ... with respect to minority students in urban school systems," state board of education chair James Peyser trumpeted the value of a projected $55 million remediation program. Noting that "60 percent of black 10th graders failed this year’s English Language Arts test," Peyser counted on remediation aid to help them graduate. "In short," he said, "we know who these young people are, we know where they go to school, we know what they need help on, and we are providing the resources necessary to deliver effective accelerated instruction.")

Well, the first class of students who must pass the test to graduate are in their junior year. In Boston, half of these students failed their last MCAS exam. That means they have just one more year to pass the test. If they don’t — and many will probably have to prepare without the benefit of special afternoon classes — they won’t graduate.

The cruel irony of this cut has not been lost on the Massachusetts Teachers Association. "This has nothing to do with whether you love or hate MCAS," says Laura Barrett, a spokesperson for the group. "It’s there. The state has said it’s there. They have to provide the resources to help students meet it."

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Issue Date: May 16 - 23, 2002
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