Momentum growing for ed funding bill

Will measure include other reform provisions?

Holyoke state Rep. Aaron Vega speaking at State House press conference unveiling the Education Promise Act. (Photo by Michael Jonas)

SIX MONTHS AFTER the clock ran out on negotiations to revamp the state’s education funding formula, a broad coalition of lawmakers, mayors, and school leaders unveiled legislation on Wednesday to finish that work in the new session now underway on Beacon Hill.

“There are no more excuses,” said Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, co-chair of the Legislature’s education committee and lead sponsor of the bill, at Wednesday’s State House press briefing. “We must act with urgency. Let’s enact this bill into law before the start of the next school year.”

There is more momentum behind a funding overhaul than at any point since a 2015 state commission reported that schools were being underfunded by anywhere from $1 billion to $2 billion because of spiraling costs for health care, special education, and other school variables. House and Senate leaders have voiced support for taking action this term, and Gov. Charlie Baker said in his inaugural address last week that he intends to propose updates to the funding formula as separate legislation later this month. But none of that means it will be easy to get to the finish line.

“I think there’s a lot of momentum. There’s a lot of people that are committed to this,” said Rep. Aaron Vega of Holyoke, one of the two House co-sponsors of the bill filed today. “The devil’s in the details as always.”

What could emerge as a contentious detail is whether a funding overhaul also includes other reforms aimed at lifting achievement in low-performing districts and schools.

The original education funding formula was part of the sweeping 1993 Education Reform Act that also ushered in big changes in how schools operate, including new curriculum standards and accountability through MCAS testing as well the introduction of charter schools. Some education advocates say new funding for schools should again be part of a so-called “grand bargain” that includes other reforms, such as agreement to extend the school day in struggling districts.

“How can the money be invested in a way to do the unfinished work of the 1993 Education Reform Act,” asked Marty Walz, chair of the advisory council of the state’s Democrats for Education Reform chapter. “We’ve had these large gaps that we’ve been unable to close. More of the same isn’t going to get us a different outcome,” said Walz, a former Boston state representative who co-chaired the Legislature’s education committee.

“I think we need to be having a better conversation about what we’re going to be doing with this $1.5 billion,” said Keri Rodrigues, president of Massachusetts Parents United, a statewide advocacy group. “The achievement gap is the biggest crisis we have in Massachusetts education and the plan to overcome that is not detailed in what’s being presented today.”

Chang-Diaz estimated that the bill would increase state education aid by $900 million to $2 billion, depending on the final formula lawmakers agree to. “We do not need new revenue to start the work of this bill,” she said of the several year phase-in of new funding. But she said the state would eventually need to seek revenue to fully fund the legislation.

The bill sponsors do not seem keen on the idea of including other reforms with the funding overhaul. Vega said his biggest concern is that in a House version of the bill or proposal from Baker “there’s going to be some kind of ties or there’s going to be some kind of stipulations.”

Chang-Diaz said she has not yet seen any proposals that would have “any kind of strings” attached to funding. But she said anything that makes money available through a grant or incentive program that conditions new funding on adopting certain reforms will mean “leaving some kids behind” if their districts don’t receive the awards.

“When are we going to make those kids whole?” she said, characterizing the funding in the bill as “owed money” that the state has been shortchanging districts on.

Liam Kerr, director of the state Democrats for Education Reform chapter, said debate over the legislation has to include considering what approaches might make a difference in raising outcomes for students at the low end of the achievement gap.

“Today was a great day for saying the state has a responsibility to fund education,” he said. “I think the next six months are going to be about the state’s responsibility to ensure an adequate education, not just an adequately funded one.”

House and Senate negotiators could not come to terms on a funding bill at the close of the Legislature’s session last year. The branches agreed on two big pillars of the recommendations from the 2015 Foundation Budget Review Commission – revisions to the formula covering districts’ costs for health insurance and special education. But the House was not ready to embrace a formula for two other changes recommended by the commission, increased funding for English language learners and added money for educating students from low-income families. The House proposed instead to have the state education department carry out more analyses of those factors.

Vega said after today’s rollout of the bill that progress has been made in gathering that information.

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Michael Jonas

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