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Behind passage of Fair Share Amendment, Massachusetts Teachers Association lays out five legislative goals for coming session

Massachusetts Teachers Association President Max Page.
Massachusetts Teachers Association
Massachusetts Teachers Association President Max Page.

Max Page is the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the largest union in New England, which represents around 110,000 educators. With the start of the 2023 state legislative session weeks away and Governor-elect Maura Healey preparing to take office, the MTA is laying out its legislative agenda for the coming year. The successful passage of the Fair Share Amendment in November’s election means that a new tax on the wealthiest Massachusetts residents will generate almost $2 billion for public education and transportation. Page spoke with WAMC.

PAGE: We're calling for a dramatic reinvestment in public higher education to achieve high quality, debt-free public higher education for every resident in the commonwealth. Over many years, we disinvested substantially in public higher education, and that's turned into higher tuition and fees and much higher student debt. And so, our goal is to return to a time, frankly, when a student could work a minimum wage job and go debt free, even to our most costly college, my home campus of UMass Amherst. And we have to be sure to invest in the buildings and in the programs and most of all, in the educators, the staff and faculty who do the work on our campuses. I’ll just highlight especially, we have a huge problem of thousands of adjunct faculty who have low pay, no health insurance, no benefits, and this is just terrible for them, and it's terrible for the students to have this kind of gig workforce of educators on our campuses. So, part of the winning the Fair Share Amendment, which MTA was central to, was about providing the funds for a major reinvestment in public higher education. That's right there in the constitutional amendment that we passed on November 8th.

WAMC: The second goal listed is providing more resources for pre-K through 12 public schools above and beyond the Student Opportunity Act. Walk us through that- What would that investment look like? And what do you feel like the act’s limits look like?

So we passed this incredible bill, the Student Opportunity Act, that was signed in, I think, November or December of 2019. Well, three months later, we were in the midst of COVID. So, we all know that the impact of COVID has had on our students, on their academic learning, on their social and mental wellbeing, is profound. And so, while we are thrilled about continuing the rollout of the Student Opportunity Act over the next several years, we also think we need to set aside more funds from the Fair Share Amendment monies to invest in more student counselors, a nurse in every building, a librarian in every building. We also need to make sure we lift up our education support professionals, our paraprofessionals, who help out some of our neediest students, and yet those are those educators are paid really poverty wages. So, we need to use the moment to finally provide living wages for every educator. We also need to provide more funds for school repairs and new buildings. We made some progress on in the Student Opportunity Act, but there's so many, there's hundreds of critical school building issues out there. And I think if we learned anything during the pandemic is we need to update our school facilities so they are safe and healthy and also green.

The third goal is a long standing one among many educators and activists in the state, to end what the MTA describes as the “destructive and punitive aspects of the MCAS exams.” Talk to us about that. Why are standardized tests in the crosshairs of the MTA this year?

Well, it’s been in for many years, and frankly, it's widely held amongst school superintendents and school committees and parents that the testing takes up too much time, up to 25 days a year away from learning focused on these tests. And furthermore, it doesn't really measure learning or the full range of skills and attributes that we want out of our students coming out of public pre-K-12 schools. And finally, the test scores largely mimic the wealth, social demographics of parents and their communities. So, if I can tell you essentially what the scores are going to be before the students take the test, that indicates that it's really about the kind of what the wealth and advantages and privileges that students bring to it, bring to that test. So, we think it's high time we overhaul the 20-year-old testing regime that has some really punitive measures. There are over 50,000 students who have failed to get a diploma, even though their teachers are had said that they were ready to graduate with a diploma but they didn't pass one part of the MCAS test. We have districts like Lawrence and Holyoke and Southbridge that have been in receivership largely because of low MCAS scores. And those receiverships, that is, when the state takes over the district, denying the democratic running of those school districts, have been an abject failure. That's widely held for the past 12 years that those have been an abject failure. So, in other words, assessing, even having some standardized tests as diagnostics, which would still be required under our proposal, but removing the punitive elements of our testing regime is really important to us.

Now, the fourth goal is the restoration of public employees right to strike. Give us a little context to this. When was that right removed, and what would restoring it mean for the many teachers and educators you represent with the MTA?

The prohibition on public workers striking goes back to the 1919 Boston police – it was called the policemen at the time – the policemen strike of that time. And let's be clear, there was a real racial, ethnic bias there because, the statehouse, dominated largely not by Irish people, angry at a largely Irish police force for going on strike. So that was established in 1919, and it still is with us. It's a denial of a basic human right and labor right, that is, to withhold one's labor if necessary to make one's case for fair contracts and fair working conditions. We also think it's actually a public service. When this is allowed, when workers have gone on strike, as our members have in Haverhill and Malden and Brookline recently, they bring sometimes years-long tensions and contract negotiations to a quick close. And that's been beneficial to the entire community. So, this is a basic race that needs to be restored. It’s long past needing to be restored.

Now, lastly, increasing the cost-of-living adjustment and payments to retired educators and public servants. Talk to us about that. What kind of adjustment needs to be made from the MTA’s perspective? And again, what's the impact of the current situation on folks you represent?

First, what's important for listeners to know is that Massachusetts public employees, municipal and state employees, do not pay into Social Security. That means if you work the bulk of your career as a public servant in Massachusetts, you are not going to get Social Security, or very little. So you're really dependent on that state pension that you have contributed to over many, many years. But in fact, once you retire, there's only a small cost of living increase on only a small portion of a pension. So, I think it's $13,000 now. Let's say it goes up, the legislature determines it goes up 2%. It only goes up 2% on $13,000 of one's pension, and that means that you effectively, each year, our retired public servants are seeing a decline in the value of those pensions. So we're simply asking for a modest increase on the amount of a pension that is covered by, that is, that will get this increased cost of living amount.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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