No time for ‘half-steps’: Lawmakers aim to pass reform bills in education, health care

Massachusetts Statehouse. (Photo by Ana Goni-Lessan/BU News Service)

By Noor Adatia
BU News Service

BOSTON — After months of legislative downtime on Beacon Hill, lawmakers representing parts of the Pioneer Valley said they will be working to address inequities in the areas of education and health care this fall.

In particular, legislators are focused on passing the Student Opportunity Act, which would improve and increase funding for public schools by using recommendations from the Foundation Budget Review Commission. The bill is up for debate Thursday on the Senate floor.

The current legislation, which passed in 1993, was written to ensure that students from low-income communities would receive the same education as students from wealthier districts; however, the formula for public school funding has not been changed since then, Sen. Jo Comerford explained.

“Unfortunately, that has not been updated and that has been a failing on the state’s part,” Comerford, D-Northampton, said. “It’s put a lot of pressure on cities and towns.”

As a result, public school funding across the commonwealth has been underfunded for the past 26 years, failing to meet the needs of many communities.

“Districts with a greater proportion of low-income students need more money to help educate those students to fudge stubborn opportunity gaps,” said Comerford, who represents nine school districts in her area.

Rep. Dan Carey, D-Easthampton, said a major goal of the education funding bill is to make public schools more equitable.

“We’re trying to close those achievement gaps throughout the state and every school district,” Carey said. The legislation also focuses on areas with higher percentages of English language learners.

Carey said he thinks the bill has been long overdue and hopes the House will pass it by the end of the calendar year.

“To be able to recalculate the formula with the correct numbers for 2019 and today’s education will go a long way in making it a fairer system for schools across the state,” he said.

Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, said she will be supporting the bill and also plans to advocate for clearer provisions related to reimbursing costs for transportation. Domb explained these costs affect rural districts such as Amherst that rely more heavily on school buses.

“I also feel strongly about educational equity throughout the state and treating much lower-income districts fairly and equitably,” Domb said. She added that even her constituents have made it clear to her that they don’t want to receive more money than poorer communities who require greater assistance.

College closure bill
In terms of other educational legislation, Domb said she hopes the college closure bill will make its way to the House floor by Thanksgiving. The bill, which is a revision of what Gov. Charlie Baker submitted, aims to support host communities affected by college shutdowns and improve transparency in higher education.

Domb said that as a representative for Amherst — home to three universities — she has to take into consideration “the impact that will be felt on those communities when colleges close.” The closing of Mount Ida College and subsequent merger with University of Massachusetts Amherst last year rattled residents.

There have been several college closures in Massachusetts in recent years due to the financial strain faced by small universities. Domb said she intends to work closely with the Legislature’s Committee on Higher Education to address these issues in the following months.

How health care factors in
Another priority this fall for Hampshire County lawmakers is health care accessibility and affordability. The escalating costs of employee health care has resulted in the current system that underfunds public schools.

“We have to begin to understand that we need a health care transformation that is meaningful in the commonwealth,” said Comerford, who supports a single-payer system.

The Senate is currently developing health care initiatives to pull costs down, according to Comerford. This year, she presented a bill to ensure patients continue to receive mental health services and noted the isssue as one of her priorities.

As a part of her agenda, Domb said she will be voting in favor of a bill that will allow those eligible for Medicaid to make MassHealth an option for their health care.

“It’s to support and strengthen a public health system, and in Massachusetts, our public option is MassHealth,” she said. If passed, this bill acts as a “critical stepping stone” to establishing single-payer health care in the state.

National issues
Domb and Comerford shared their intent to collaborate with other lawmakers in the county this fall to pass meaningful legislation related to not only state issues, but also federal ones. Most recently, the two lawmakers co-sponsored a resolution to support an investigation into impeaching President Trump. Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry later that afternoon.

“The timing could not have been more fortuitous,” Domb said.

Comerford said one of her political values during this session is fearlessness, stating that the issues facing Massachusetts residents today are complicated and deeply entrenched.

“There is no time, no room, for half-measures or half-steps,” she said. “We must seek the most bold, most comprehensive solutions we can.”

This article was originally published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

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