House bill quietly filed on education funding

Added payments for low-income students emerging as key difference

House bill quietly filed on education funding

WHILE BIG EDUCATION funding bills filed by Gov. Charlie Baker and a key state senator have garnered lots of attention, a third school financing bill was quietly filed in the House last week that also proposes a sweeping update of the state’s 26-year-old education aid formula.

Rep. Paul Tucker, a Salem Democrat, submitted legislation hours before last Friday’s bill filing deadline that would also steer millions of dollars in new spending to Massachusetts schools. Tucker’s bill, which has a bipartisan roster of 32 cosponsors, including House Speaker Pro Tempore Patricia Haddad, would implement all four central funding recommendations of a 2015 state commission that concluded Massachusetts was lagging badly in its support of K-12 education.

It means there are now proposals in play from all three key players on Beacon Hill, setting the stage for what’s expected to be the biggest debate in decades on education funding in the state.

“I clearly see the appetite among the Legislature and the governor to do something here to get this done,” said Tucker. “I am very optimistic that at the end of this legislative session we’re going to have something we can be proud of.”

Earlier this month, a group of lawmakers and advocates unveiled a funding bill under the lead of Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, cochair of the Legislature’s education committee. Chang-Diaz estimated that the bill would add $900 million to $2 billion to the state’s annual contribution to school spending in the state.

On Wednesday, Baker rolled out his education bill, which he said would increase the state’s “foundation” school budget – a minimum level of spending that combines local and state dollars – by $1.1 billion once fully implemented over a seven-year phase-in period.

Chang-Diaz issued a statement, cosigned by several other legislators and advocates, criticizing the governor’s bill for not adequately funding schools with large low-income student populations. The bill “fails to even come close to honoring the guidelines of the Foundation Budget Review Commission with respect to high-poverty districts,” the statement said, referring to the 2015 state commission that recommended a revamp of the school funding formula.

Emerging as a central area of disagreement is the component of the school funding formula that provides extra money for districts with high concentrations of low-income students. In the bill filed by Chang-Diaz, districts with the highest concentration of low-income students would receive double the baseline per pupil funding established by the formula. The governor’s bill would give those districts a roughly 57 or 58 percent increase for each low-income student.

Under the House bill, districts with the lowest concentration of low-income students would receive a 50 percent higher level of aid for each such student, with progressively greater add-on payments for districts with higher percentages of low-income students.

While the Senate education committee chair is taking a lead role in early stages of the debate, the House bill was not filed by that chamber’s education committee chair, Alice Peisch, but by a rank-and-file member of the committee.

“I remain fully committed to adopting a plan to implement the recommendations of the [Foundation Budget Review Commission] this year and will be cosponsoring the bill filed by Rep. Tucker,” Peisch said in a statement. “As the representative from Salem, a Gateway City, and a member of the Education Committee for the past two sessions, Rep. Tucker appreciates the impact that implementing these recommendations will have and I look forward seeing the bill progress.”

Asked on Friday about the bill filed in the House, Speaker Robert DeLeo said in a statement: “Rep. Tucker has proven to be a strong public school advocate who understands the needs and challenges facing our low-income school districts, and I look forward to working with him on this important issue.”

The House bill would also establish a Student Supports Fund, which superintendents, principals, or even individual teachers in districts or schools with a high concentration of low-income students could apply for funding to develop classroom programming tailored to student needs.

Baker’s bill also includes discretionary funds that the state education commissioner could award to low-performing districts. The governor’s bill would also let the commissioner withhold state aid for administrative functions to districts that fail to implement provisions of state-directed turnaround plans at chronically underperforming schools.

That provision was met with strong criticism from teachers’ unions and other advocates. The House bill does not include any such provision.

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