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Eldridge files bills for increased state aid and mandatory phys. ed.

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HARVARD — State Rep. James Eldridge, D-Acton, is supporting two education bills that address concerns recently voiced by his constituents.

He filed a bill Tuesday to establish standard minimums for Chapter 70 state aid to schools. He also supported a bill to make physical education part of the core curriculum in every commonwealth school.

The former has been dubbed the Acton Proposal, which marks the collaboration between Eldridge and the Acton Board of Selectmen (BOS) and School Committee.

If adopted, the petition would define minimum Chapter 70 aid statewide as $1,500 per pupil for fiscal year 2007, $1,750 for FY08, and $2,000 for FY09.

After that, the increases would be of the same percentage as the as consumer price index, a monthly government report that tracks the price of goods and services.

The bill would increase aid to approximately 30 percent of the districts in the state, said Eldridge. It would cost $266 million over the next three years, or $100 million more than the Chapter 70 increases proposed in the governor’s budget.

”It’s definitely an ambitious goal, but I think it’s important to set the bar high,” he said.

Eldridge is working to get the bill adopted into the legislature’s budget, which should be complete by either March or April.

Less clear is whether the Acton Proposal would be included within, though Eldridge said there are some promising signs.

First, the governor and the legislature agree that Chapter 70 aid for schools should increase in the upcoming fiscal year.

While the governor’s budget calls for an overall increase in Chapter 70 aid, Eldridge said it also calls for cuts in 25 districts that he didn’t think would fly.

Instead, the burden is on the legislature to agree on something that can benefit all districts, he said.

”There’s no doubt the chapter 70 funds will be increased. I think the question is by how much and if every community will benefit,” he said.

With many towns facing budget crunches to keep up with the rising cost of providing education, Eldridge said the Acton Proposal has been getting a lot of feedback.

”I’ve been getting an incredible number of e-mails,” he said. “It’s good to show how important this is.”

One example within his district is Harvard, where the need for increased state aid was a recurring theme during the January budget-crafting process.

Initially, the town was facing an $855,000-plus override, which was driven largely by increases in the school budget.

While that figure was whittled down to $350,000, it included cuts that school proponents did not want to make.

The dilemma was referenced in an open letter to Eldridge from Harvard BOS Chairman William Marinelli.

Harvard’s average singly-family tax bill had increased by 39 percent over the past four years, he wrote. He figured it to increase by at least another 7 percent in FY07.

Harvard residents pay some of the highest income taxes in the state and are 288th for per pupil Chapter 70 state aid, he said. He closed by reiterating his support for the Acton Proposal.

”We urge you to work with your fellow legislators in order to bring greater equality to the system by establishing this minimum per-pupil funding level,” he wrote.

In other news, Eldridge also participated in a rally at Beacon Hill last week that was attended by several Harvard residents. The purpose was to make physical education a mandatory element of core curriculum in kindergarten through 12th grade for all public schools.

While he supports a current bill, Eldridge said the passage of the bill is unlikely until districts see aid that was cut several years ago restored.

”The problem is, we’re in a battle here to increase local aid and I think, quite honestly, any effort to add anything that’s seen as a mandate will be difficult until that happens,” he said.

”I think the bigger conversation is that, with all of the new testing of children in the schools, and with budget cuts, you have a lot of programs we always assumed would be there … getting cut … I think that really narrows the education of children,” he said.

With the passage of either bill uncertain at this point, he recommended constituents continue to make themselves heard.

”That’s why the advocating and the lobbying needs to continue,” he said.

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