Education wins in $56B state budget

By Sam Drysdale

State House News Service

Published: 08-09-2023 5:31 PM

BOSTON — Described as wins by education advocates across the state, all public school students will have access to free breakfast and lunch, and undocumented immigrants who went to high school in Massachusetts can now qualify for lower in-state tuition rates — two of many highlights in the state’s $56 billion budget for fiscal year 2024.

Just weeks before the school year starts, Gov. Maura Healey signed into law the policy-filled budget Wednesday, her most significant legislative action since she took office in January. In addition to the two popular education policies, the budget also commits to providing last-dollar funding for residents ages 25 and older to attend community college for free.

The budget increases spending roughly 6.2% over the budget enacted last summer, distributes newly available revenue from a surtax on high earners, and implements a slew of major policy changes.

Flanked by Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll, Cabinet secretaries and legislative leaders for a bill-signing ceremony in her office, Healey had nothing but praise to offer for the budget despite the delay in getting it to her desk. Fiscal year 2024 began July 1.

“This budget makes our state more affordable, competitive and equitable,” Healey said. “It will make a real and meaningful difference in the lives of people across Massachusetts, lowering their costs, expanding access to opportunity, improving the quality of their life.”

What’s included

For the first time, the spending plan makes use of revenue newly available from a 4% surtax on annual personal income above $1 million that voters approved in November, which must be earmarked for education and transportation uses. That money is divided into $524 million for education and $477 for transportation.

K-12 schools are in line to receive a $594 million, or 9.9%, increase in Chapter 70 funding as the budget continues to move toward full implementation of the 2019 school funding law known as the Student Opportunity Act.

One percent of the total funding, about $558 million, will go toward the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, which Healey lauded as a major milestone reflecting the state's commitment to softening the impacts of climate change and moving to a clean-energy future.

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The budget also includes $475 million in Commonwealth Cares for Children (C3) grants to early education providers, a 3.2 percent increase in unrestricted general government aid (UGGA), and $173 million in so-called Chapter 257 rate increases for human service providers.

One outside section Healey approved will revive and make permanent a lapsed pandemic-era eviction diversion program, which requires courts to pause eviction proceedings for failure to pay rent if a tenant has a pending application for rental aid.

Another launches a pilot program increasing eligibility for ConnectorCare health insurance, which the Massachusetts Health Connector advertises as offering "$0 or low monthly premiums, low out-of-pocket costs, and no deductibles." The threshold for eligibility will shift from 300 percent of the federal poverty level to 500 percent.

The first-term Democrat used her veto pen to slash a total of $272 million in spending, and she also spiked an outside section that would have pumped $205 million of one-time funding into the budget.

Healey sent back eight outside sections with proposed amendments and approved the other 103, including measures that will expand access to subsidized health care.

Universal school meals

The budget dedicates $172 million to the universal school meals program, making Massachusetts the eighth state in the country to make the free meals program permanent after the policy began in the pandemic with federal money. Of the $172 million price tag, $69 million is coming out of a new $1 billion pot of money available for the first time this year after voters in November passed a new 4% surtax on annual household income above $1 million.

“I know the stress of being in the classroom seeing kids come in from the projects hungry, falling asleep at their desk because they haven’t eaten since lunch the day before,” House Speaker Ron Mariano, who was a teacher in Quincy before joining the Legislature and pushed for the policy’s inclusion in the budget, said at the budget signing Wednesday. “What we have done is taken a huge transformative step in this country to do away with hunger within our children.”

Though there was broad agreement among representatives to continue to offer free meals through the budget, the Senate and Healey originally suggested extending the program for another year in a standalone bill rather than as part of the state’s annual spending. But both the governor and Senate president on Wednesday celebrated the program’s inclusion in the annual state spending plan.

“Universal school meals will be available to our children so their bellies won’t be grumbling in their schools while they’re trying to get work done. That will also save families approximately $1,200 per student per year so that they can spend that money on other things for their students,” Senate President Karen Spilka said.

As of June 2023, an estimated 26% of households in Massachusetts with children were facing food insecurity, according to Project Bread.

Healey called the program an “investment in childhood nutrition.”

‘In-state students’

The Senate also got one of its priorities into law via the budget — students without legal immigration status will qualify for in-state tuition rates and state financial aid at public colleges or universities in Massachusetts if they have attended a high school in the state for at least three years or obtained their GED here.

“We give every student who wants to go to college an opportunity without worrying about excessive costs or immigration status,” Spilka said.

Neither House Democrats nor Healey included the measure in their own budget bills, though the House voted last week to advance a version of the budget that included the policy.

In-state students will pay $17,357 in tuition to attend the University of Massachusetts’ flagship campus in Amherst this year, while their classmates who aren’t from Massachusetts will pay $39,293, according to the university.

Worcester State University said it will charge $10,786 for Massachusetts undergraduates and $16,866 for out-of-state undergraduates. And at Bunker Hill Community College, the cost of four credits is $920 for in-state students and $1,744 for out-of-state students, the school said.

The shift in status to “in-state students” also means more aid for undocumented immigrants. As government aid has struggled to keep pace with demand and tuition increases, UMass-generated financial aid has grown to represent 69% of free aid available for students — $395 million in fiscal year 2023. Of the university-generated aid, 81% goes to in-state students.

“A new generation of Massachusetts students is now one step closer to achieving the American dream,” said Elizabeth Sweet, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. “Tuition equity will make college more affordable for all eligible immigrants, regardless of immigration status, and empower the workforce of the future. Expanding eligibility of in-state tuition rates to all residents will prove a huge benefit to the state, as the Commonwealth is currently grappling with declining college enrollment and a dwindling workforce. Tuition equity will help solve the problem and keep Massachusetts competitive.”

Wednesday’s budget signing makes Massachusetts the 24th state to offer the lower, in-state tuition rate for those without legal immigration status.

In a 2019 analysis of Census data, the Migration Policy Institute estimated Massachusetts had about 15,000 residents without legal immigration status between the ages of 3 and 17 and another 31,000 between the ages of 18 and 24.

Senate Ways and Means Committee Chair Michael Rodrigues said in May that he does not believe the measure would generate any substantial cost for the state and would instead steer new revenue toward campuses by attracting more students who might currently be daunted by the higher out-of-state tuition costs.

“The reports I’ve seen [are] actually income generated. We know that enrollment at our community colleges has declined precipitously, especially since the pandemic. Enrollment in all higher ed has declined. So this will provide increased enrollment at our higher education institutes,” he said. “Schools would see a net gain in revenue because more students would attend with in-state tuition rates.”

MassReconnect advances

By signing the budget, Healey also fulfills one of her campaign promises. Students 25 and older can now attend community college with a commitment from the state that it will pay whatever financial aid doesn’t cover for tuition and books.

Healey, who pitched the program while campaigning last year, said the so-called MassReconnect program could reach 1.8 million Bay Staters who are eligible to receive state aid as they earn a college degree or certificate.

The budget also includes a Senate-backed initiative to offer free community college for all nursing students in the state amidst a “dire need for nurses,” Spilka said.