Editorial: Paying for education

The MetroWest Daily News

The state Department of Education has come to a conclusion that will come as no surprise to school officials and municipal finance committees across Massachusetts: State education aid isn't keeping up with inflation, and property taxpayers are being forced to make up the difference.

"Academic expectations have risen, but spending on instructional services has not kept pace," Jeffrey Nelhaus, acting commissioner of education, said this week. "Spending on instruction is being crowded out by spending on other areas."

Those areas include employee health insurance, which increased by more than 74 percent from 2002 to 2007. The average teacher salary rose by 16.4 percent over that period, and now tops $58,000. Those increases, among others - notably energy price hikes - put most school budgets in a hole from the beginning.

Salary inflation and rising health care costs are difficult to control, whether in the public or private sector, especially when union contracts are involved. Local school committees must do more to rein in new spending that doesn't produce more educational benefit.

But the report's more important finding is directed at those who control the state's share of education spending. State aid simply hasn't kept up. In 2002, state aid covered an average of 34 percent of local school spending. By 2007, that figure had fallen to 30 percent. The difference between those figures landed with a thud on the bottom line of your property tax bill.

The budget Gov. Deval Patrick proposed yesterday includes $368 million in additional education spending. While some of that is targeted at specific programs - including all-day kindergarten, extended-day classes, and MCAS tutoring - $223 million in new spending would come as direct aid to school districts. That's probably not enough to avoid property tax increases, new fees or cuts in school services, but it's a start.

With the economy sinking and the state facing a $1.3 billion deficit, even coming up with that money will be difficult. A smaller deficit last year prevented Patrick from delivering on most of his campaign promises.

Patrick's problem is he is faced with a Legislature that seems to be satisfied with the status quo. The House is ruled by Speaker Sal DiMasi, who refuses to consider Patrick's revenue proposals and refuses to come up with alternatives of his own.

Patrick's budget proposals pose a challenge to the Legislature. In order to pay for a wide range of new state investments, Patrick included $600 million in revenues from two initiatives that are still waiting for legislative action: a plan to license three casinos and a proposal to close two loopholes in the corporate tax code. DiMasi and his supporters don't like the move, but they'll have their turn at the budget next. They can either find their own way to come up with the revenue or take the blame for failing to produce the aid cities and towns need and the educational quality on which the Commonwealth's future depends.