By Andy Metzger

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

AMHERST -- As some school districts grapple with homelessness, student hunger and technological deficiencies, lawmakers unpacked Gov. Deval Patrick's proposed $205 million increase in education funding Tuesday.

Patrick has long made efforts to bridge the so-called "achievement gap" between different racial and economic demographic groups, and the needs of less fortunate young people were a focus for both lawmakers and administration officials at Tuesday's hearing at UMass Amherst.

Much of the attention was focused on educating children from pre-kindergarten through high school.

Along with a "record" $100 million increase in local education aid, known as Chapter 70, the $36.4 billion budget would allocate $15 million toward subsidized early education services for children from birth through the age of 5, helping reduce a waiting list of roughly 40,000.

"For many of our Commonwealth's children, their lifelong success is at risk because they are trapped in environments that are not providing them with enriching and inspirational learning opportunities or adequate supports to ensure that they are able to come to school ready to learn each and every day," Education Secretary Matt Malone said. "We must implement focused strategies to improve the lives of all students in the Commonwealth, and increase the opportunities for success in school, career, and beyond."

Education and Care Commissioner Tom Weber said the funding would allow 1,700 to 2,000 students to enter early education programming.

The Legislature last year turned down Patrick's call for $1.9 billion in new tax revenues to pay for transportation and education investments, instead approving a tax package worth more than $300 million a year and aimed primarily at shoring up transportation funding.

Sen. Gale Candaras, a Wilbraham Democrat, asked the officials to consider children in Springfield "coming to school literally hungry, no coats, no clothes, young people who are homeless."

"There are teachers in Springfield who are housing children....teachers in Springfield routinely buying children clothing," said Candaras who said the city is the sixth poorest in the Northeast and a group had bought a house for high school students who were living out of their cars.

"The vast majority of the children that we are supporting are our highest needs students," said Weber, whose budget request includes $2 million for grants enabling programs for 4-year-olds, and $2.5 million for information technology.

Carla Rivera, a mother of three from Springfield, said she was "lucky" to enroll her two older daughters in early education after spending six months on a waiting list, according to prepared testimony provided by Stand for Children. Rivera said her 3-year-old son Carlos is on a wait-list and she was told it would take two-to-four years.

The "gap-closing strategy" centers around improving the literacy of the state's third graders, Malone, a former superintendent in Brockton and Swampscott, told the News Service.

"We've set an ambitious goal of cutting proficiency gaps in half by 2016-2017," Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Deputy Commissioner Jeff Wulfson told the legislative panel. He said, "Your investment in public education is paying huge dividends."

Wulfson said beginning in March the state will "test drive" the new Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a potential replacement to MCAS. This year, 81,000 students in grades 3-11 statewide will take PARCC.

Initially PARCC will be available to be taken with a pencil, but the plan is to transition it towards an all-electronic model, Wulfson said, noting there is $37 million in an information technology bond bill that would provide matching funds for districts to upgrade their telecommunications to prepare for the test.

"They may not have the funds to match, to get the opportunities to get those grants," Sen. Michael Moore, a Millbury Democrat said.

The House and Senate Ways and Means budgetary hearing took place before the backdrop of a new academic building under construction on the UMass Amherst campus, and Malone spent portions of the hearing demonstrating local knowledge of educational issues in lawmaker's districts as well as local cuisine - recommending Shady Glen Diner in Turners Falls.

"Maybe a little bit more passion," Rep. Angelo D'Emilia, a Bridgewater Republican, suggested chidingly.

"I've got to turn it up a little," Malone responded. At a later point in the meeting during a discussion of the IT bond bill, Malone pumped his fist and said, "Support it all."

The Legislature traditionally makes broad changes to the governor's budgetary proposal as the bill makes its way through the House, through the Senate and then back to the Corner Office for approval, amendments and vetoes.

Malone also noted that education isn't legally required until a child turns 6, and said the state should make an effort to expand its offerings to children younger than that.

"There's still a population of kids that aren't getting really good kindergarten," Malone told the News Service. He said, "Let's educate as many as we possibly can."

A special commission on early education estimated the cost of addressing the full wait list at $303 million.