Senate calls for ed funding formula revamp

Lawmakers say the state is not making good on promise of 1993 reform law

STATE OFFICIALS ARE marking the 25th anniversary of the landmark 1993 education reform law with a statewide set of events being held under the banner “Leading the Nation,” a reference to the top performance of Massachusetts students on national achievement tests.

But the boasts and bows are colliding with an inconvenient truth: The state’s students may be leading the nation, but Massachusetts is lagging badly on the funding promise to schools that was a key pillar of the reform law being celebrated.

Two-and-a-half years after a state commission sounded the alarm on school finances, the Senate took a step toward addressing the problem by unanimously passing legislation on Thursday that calls for a revamp of the school funding formula that districts rely on.

The bill calls for the Legislature and the state Executive Office for Administration and Finance to establish a schedule each year for a phasing in of the recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission, a bipartisan panel that delivered recommendations in October 2015 that would boost state aid to schools by $1 billion to $2 billion per year.

The 1993 law established a baseline “foundation” budget for each district that was deemed the minimum amount of per pupil spending needed to provide students an adequate education. The state aid formula, which funneled hundreds of millions of dollars of new education funding to districts, much of it to lower-income communities, was paired with a new system of academic standards and accountability for student outcomes, including the annual MCAS test.

Growing concerns that the formula was not keeping pace with education needs prompted the Legislature to form the review commission, and its 2015 report identified costs for employee health care and special education services as the leading areas where the formula did not anticipate dramatic cost increases that school districts have faced. The report said the funding formula was also failing to account adequately for the higher costs of educating English language learners and those from low-income households.

“The promise of a quality education is not just one we made to our districts as elected officials,” said Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, the Senate co-chair of the Joint Committee on Education and lead sponsor of the bill, speaking on the Senate floor before Thursday’s vote. “It is a promise that runs to the very heart of who we are as a Commonwealth.”

Chang-Diaz said the 1993 reform law “made a bold, righteous, and radically American promise” of equity in education, a promise that she said the state was no longer meeting.

Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz: The 1993 education reform law “made a bold, righteous, and radically American promise.”

The 38-0 vote reflected the broad bipartisan support for an update of the formula, and it came in response to growing cries from districts across the state that have imposed cuts year after year.

“In some ways, we’re just cobbling it together right now,” said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. “Districts certainly don’t feel like they’re doing their best job. They’re just doing what they can with the resources they have.”

That certainly is the case in Brockton, where 80 teachers were laid off before the start of the current school year and the district was forced to cut $16 million from its budget.

“We’re hanging on here by a thread,” said Kathleen Smith, the district superintendent. She helped organize several busloads of students and staff from the district who traveled to the State House to show support for the Senate bill.

It was a lawsuit filed on behalf a Brockton student in the early 1990s that pressured the Legislature to take action that resulted in the 1993 reform law. More than 25 years later, the district is again at the center of discussion about a possible lawsuit claiming the state is not meeting its constitutional obligation to all students.

“We are looking at an equity in education lawsuit if that’s what it takes,” said Smith, who met on Wednesday with other superintendents as part of ongoing conversations on potential litigation.

The Senate has previously endorsed language similar to that of the bill passed on Thursday only to see it die in the House. But those efforts either included it as part of the Senate budget proposal or, as was the case two years ago, folded it into a broader education bill that proved to be very contentious because it also addressed the state charter school cap. Senate leaders say the stand-alone measure passed on Thursday puts a clear spotlight on the merits of the foundation budget formula bill itself.

Rep. Alice Peisch, the House co-chair of the Joint Committee on Education, said she was not sure whether the House would take up the bill before the two-year legislative session ends in July. “I haven’t had enough conversations with people here to know how much interest there would be,” she said on Wednesday.

Rep. Sean Garballey, an Arlington Democrat, offered language similar to the Senate bill as an amendment last month to the House budget. The measure gained 88 co-sponsors, a majority of House members, but it was not included in the amendments hashed out behind closed doors and sent to the floor to be adopted.

“I think there is recognition by virtually everyone that we need to implement these recommendations,” said Peisch, who co-chaired the Foundation Budget Review Commission with Chang-Diaz. “It’s really a question of resources and the way we do it.”

She said the House has already begun taking steps to address the shortcomings the commission identified in the funding formula. In the 2018 state budget and in the 2019 budget plan, which is still pending on Beacon Hill, she said the House significantly increased the allotment for employee health care. The increases would, if continued each year, put the state on track to close over seven years the $400 to $500 million gap in school employee health care funding identified by the foundation budget report.

In terms of overall school aid, however, the House budget passed last month provides about $24 million less than the plan unveiled on Thursday by the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

“I think the view is that the House is a little more skeptical about how to pay for this,” said Scott, the superintendent association director, about the budget commission recommendations. “The Senate’s been very explicit about this. The House has not weighed in with the same kind of enthusiasm.”

“From our perspective, this is where the real work starts,” said Tracy Novick, field director for the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. “The Senate we felt pretty good about. The House is what will take the ground troops really coming in.”

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