State Sen. Eric Lesser held a wide-ranging discussion with constituents at the Greenleaf Community Center in Springfield Monday evening, fielding questions on topics ranging from health care to the Equifax data scandal during an hour-and-a-half long town hall.
Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat whose district also includes Ludlow, Belchertown, Granby, Hampden, Wilbraham, East Longmeadow, and parts of Springfield and Chicopee. first faced a series of questions about the state’s public education system.
Several teachers and advocates, including former Springfield teachers’ union head Timothy Collins, said the state was not fully funding its school systems and questioned the use of standardized testing to evaluate schools.
“We’ve gone way over the limit in putting the value on these tests and not putting the value on the growth of these kids,” said Collins, citing a legislative study that found the state’s funding formula underestimates the cost of education by over $1 billion per year.
Lesser, a supporter of the empowerment zone model that has overhauled management in struggling middle schools in Springfield, said he agreed that the state overemphasizes testing.
“It’s gone way overboard,” he said. “When you have kindergarten kids having panic attacks because of standardized testing regimes, it’s a problem.”
Another questioner asked Lesser if he would support legislation to fund student loan forgiveness by taxing the endowments of private colleges. Lesser is a supporter of legislation to tax endowments over $1 billion, but said that funding would be used to support community colleges — not buy out student debt.
Rather, Lesser emphasized his proposal for a student borrowers’ “bill of rights” that would crack down on tactics used by loan servicers like Navient, which was sued by the federal government in January for allegedly cheating borrowers out of their repayment rights.
Currently, the Department of Education outsources the processing and collection of student loans to private companies which lack oversight, Lesser said.
“Quite frankly used car salesmen in Massachusetts have stricter regulations in Massachusetts than student loan servicers,” Lesser said. “It’s kind of crazy.”
Lesser’s bill would require that student loan servicers — the companies which handle billing and collections for lenders — be licensed by the state. Servicers based in Massachusetts would only be allowed to operate after paying a $1,000 license fee and having their business record evaluated by regulators.
The proposal would also create an ombudsman to help guide borrowers through the repayment process and advise them of their rights.
Lesser also received a question about the future of his proposal for higher speed rail between Springfield and Boston — a signature issue for the senator which has faced repeated setbacks on Beacon Hill.
A measure to study the feasibility of a rail expansion has passed the Senate during each of Lesser’s terms in office but has been failed to become law. Last year Gov. Charlie Baker’s vetoed the measure and suggested a more general study in its place, but the state House of Representatives did not override the veto or implement Baker’s plan.
And this year, the study again passed the Senate but was written out of the budget during the secretive conference committee process, in which House and Senate negotiators craft a final budget package.
Lesser said he believes Springfield to Boston rail is essential to Western Massachusetts’ economic development, saying the region has not shared in the growth that has benefitted Boston and Eastern Mass. Western Mass. tax dollars paid for the Big Dig and continue to pay for the MBTA, Lesser said, arguing that the state should be willing to invest in infrastructure west of I-495 as well.
“We frankly have fallen very far behind other parts of our Commonwealth,” Lesser said. “Unless we create growth and local opportunity here in Western Mass, we will not get the opiate crisis under control and we will not get the issues plaguing our schools under control and we will not solve health care.”