House budget addresses COVID-related education dilemmas

Looks at early education, K-12 issues, digital divide

THE CORONAVIRUS pandemic created – and exposed – multiple problems with the state’s education system, from preschool through high school. Now, lawmakers appear poised to use the must-pass vehicle of the annual state budget to begin figuring out how to address some of these issues.

A large consolidated amendment passed at the end of Tuesday’s budget debate, after midnight, includes several education-related study commissions, funds, and data tracking requirements.

On the childcare side, Massachusetts’ childcare system is primarily private-pay and expensive, with some subsidies available for low-income children – a system that has long raised concerns about the lack of affordable, quality childcare for many families. Forced closures due to COVID-19 and expensive reopening requirements put many providers in financial peril.

The House budget includes several investments in early education, including a new $10 million fund to help lower income parents pay for childcare on a sliding scale.

The budget amendment would create a new public-private trust fund to support early education and care. This would be a way for public money and private donations to be pooled to help the early education field. The use of the money is left broad, so it could be used for technical and financial assistance to providers themselves, for agencies established to help providers and for new programs aimed at shoring up early education.

The amendment would also establish a commission, led by the co-chairs of the Legislature’s Education Committee, to review how childcare programs are funded and make recommendations for legislative changes. The commission would look at COVID-19-related challenges, but would also look more broadly at what funding is available for childcare, models for providing care and what changes can be made to improve access to high-quality childcare.

On K-12 education, one big problem with remote learning is that some children simply have not logged in – and the state is not tracking how many students are in that category. The House budget amendment would require the creation of a remote learning attendance and participation tracking system, and every school district with remote learning would have to track and report publicly on the number of students who have not participated and what efforts have been made to reach those students.

Meet the Author

Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Another problem as schools rely heavily on internet-based learning is the long-standing divide between who has access to high-speed internet and who does not. Stories abound of rural students sitting in parking lots trying to access Wi-Fi because they lack a reliable broadband connection at home. The budget amendment would create a commission to study “equity and access to telecommunications service” including broadband internet and make recommendations for addressing the digital divide. The commission would be tasked with examining the problem in low-income communities and communities of color – where the barrier is often money to pay for internet service – and in rural communities, where the problem is often a lack of connectivity.

The House also wants to require the Department of Children and Families to monitor and report on school attendance for students with open DCF cases.