BOSTON (SHNS) – The state education board advanced its fiscal 2024 budget recommendations Tuesday morning, which focus on areas such as early grade literacy, tutoring grants and curriculum review.
Members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education affirmed the recommendations on a 9-0-1 vote, with Secretary of Education James Peyser abstaining as the budget suggestions will come to him next.
Improving literacy in the early grades is a priority, given documented learning loss in this area, said Budget Committee Chair Farzana Mohamed.
On last year’s Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS, just 41 percent of third through eighth graders scored in the “meeting or exceeding expectations” range in English language arts, a drop of 5 percentage points from 2021. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said that grades three through five showed sharper declines than grades six through eight, “indicating challenges in early literacy.”
“We have several students who’ve fallen behind due to lost learning time during the pandemic and it’s really important to continue the initiatives that are underway to address some of that learning loss,” Mohamed said in Tuesday’s meeting.
“Early grade literacy” is typically defined as preschool to third grade, according to a DESE spokesperson Jacqueline Reis.
Focused funding in this area lines up with DESE Commissioner Jeffrey Riley’s goals and objectives for the remainder of the 2022-2023 school year, where he identified “early literacy” as a priority.
The board’s Budget Committee used the commissioner’s identified priorities to build the fiscal year 2024 recommendations, according to a memo from the department.
The commissioner also asked the Budget Committee to support a structural budget shift for its early college work in the fiscal year 2024 state budget, the memo says. The commissioner hoped to rectify a roundabout administrative procedure, through which most funds for early college programming are appropriated to the Executive Office of Education — which then have to be moved internally within the state budget to DESE before funding can be delivered. The commissioner requested that these funds go directly to DESE in next year’s budget.
Other priorities include expanding career and vocational technical education programs; assistance to underperforming schools and districts, including $10 million to the Boston Public Schools; grants for tutoring and interventions to address learning loss from the pandemic; professional development opportunities for educators; and furthering efforts to strengthen curriculum review.
The committee also discussed providing rural schools with aid, as well as social and emotional learning, noting a need to focus on chronic absenteeism, “perhaps via a program of matching funding,” the committee’s memo said.
In 2022, 98,000 children — or over 28 percent of all students — missed more than 18 days of the 180-day school year, which is considered “chronically absent.”
The board’s vote on Tuesday considered only the committee’s recommendations for next year’s budget, Reis said. A line item proposal will come at a later date. In recent years, the state budget total for DESE was $6.4 billion in fiscal year 2022 and $7.2 billion in fiscal year 2023.
The board’s consideration of education spending comes at a time when the landscape is shifting, with schools on the receiving end of massive funding infusions from the federal government and under the multi-year Student Opportunity Act.
A constitutional amendment imposing a surtax on wealthier households approved by voters last week will eventually mean another major pot of funding for education, and transportation.
In the nearer future, school districts have to decide how to spend the influx of federal funds that flowed into their coffers for pandemic relief by the end of the 2023 school year.
The News Service reported earlier this month that only about a third of the $2.9 billion in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funding has been spent.
As of Tuesday’s meeting, Mohamed said, there was about $1.5 billion left in federal funds that districts could draw upon. These funds are distributed according to a weighted formula based on district population.
The coming fiscal year 2024 budget will also be infused with Student Opportunity Act funds, which dedicated $1.5 billion to the public education system over seven years, by 2027.