Agreement reached on ed funding bill
Legislation directs $1.5b in new aid, restores state oversight from original proposal
LAWMAKERS HAVE REACHED agreement on a long-awaited education funding bill, setting the stage for the most significant update to the formula for financing Massachusetts school districts since the landmark 1993 Education Reform Act.
The bill, which emerged after less than three weeks of closed-door negotiations by House and Senate members, would steer $1.5 billion in new state aid to local school systems, with those educating lots of low-income students poised to see the largest increases in funding.
The House and Senate had agreed on the funding increase for local districts, but were hung up over the issue of how much authority the state education commissioner should have in overseeing how the state money is spent. That issue was resolved by a six-member House-Senate conference committee, which reached agreement on language that largely restores the stronger oversight authority given to the commissioner in the original version of the bill unveiled in September and the version passed last month by the House.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka, in a joint statement, applauded the conference committee bill and work of Rep. Alice Peisch and Sen. Jason Lewis, the education committee co-chairs who led the negotiations, and said the bill would go to both the House and Senate tomorrow for final approval.
Exactly two months ago, in an unusual move that appeared to augur well for quick action by the Legislature, the leaders of both legislative chambers jointly unveiled a bill that would rewrite the state’s 26-year-old education funding formula. The legislation, rolled out to considerable fanfare by DeLeo and Spilka, together with Peisch and Lewis, who spent months drafting the bill, proposed a huge increase in state aid to school districts, to be phased-in over seven years.
The striking display of bicameral unity suggested the House and Senate would avoid the standoff that stymied efforts to pass an education funding bill last session and increased pressure on the Legislature to act on a bill this year.
But when the legislation went to the Senate, an amendment was unanimously adopted that stripped out a provision giving the state education commissioner authority to review and reject district improvement plans that school systems would be required to submit every three years as part of the big funding increase.
Senate backers of the move, led by the amendment’s sponsor, Sen. Patricia Jehlen, said it was meant to empower local stakeholders to devise plans to boost student performance and close persistent achievement gaps. Reform advocates, however, said it removed a crucial tool for holding districts accountable for how they spend millions of dollars in new state funding.
The House restored the oversight provision when the bill moved there, and the six-member House-Senate conference committee was then charged with working out differences between the two chambers.
Peisch and Lewis, who co-chaired the conference committee, both expressed optimism that agreement could be reached before the Legislature’s last formal session of the year on November 20, but they adopted different stances on the divide they had to bridge.
Lewis called it a fairly minor difference, while Peisch suggested the Senate change represented a significant break with the state’s history of pairing big funding measures for schools with measures designed to hold districts accountable for results.
Peisch said last month before the conference committee got underway that “the language that came out of the [education] committee was very well-crafted and struck the right balance between local control and ensuring this significant new investment gets spent in the way that best serves the students most in need, so I am hopeful we will retain that language.”
Lewis ultimately backed off the Senate position, which had strong support from teachers unions, which have strongly opposed to many aspects of state oversight of school improvement efforts.
Reform groups, led by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, which was instrumental in pushing passage of the 1993 education reform law, pushed hard for the bill to retain the accountability provision.
Although Spilka and Lewis suggested one concern was whether the state education department had the capacity to review all district improvements, state education commissioner Jeff Riley weighed at a recent meeting of the state education board, saying he would welcome more oversight authority on district plans.
Peisch said there may be legitimate concerns about the department’s ability to carry out the reviews, but she said those should be taken up separately in the state budget.
Speaking to reporters earlier Tuesday after the conference committee report was filed, Lewis said the bill struck a balance between giving districts flexibility to development improvement plans and “and appropriate input and support and oversight from the state department of education.”
DeLeo said in September that the bill could be funded without establishing a new revenue stream, but Spilka later suggested that might depend on whether revenue growth remains as strong as it has been in recent years.
Gov. Charlie Baker has been circumspect in commenting on the bill as it worked its way through the Legislature, though he made clear his support for strong accountability measures and his opposition to the Senate amendment.
Baker filed his own education funding bill in January, but the measure now likely to land on his desk would increase aid to local districts by $1 billion more than his proposal.
Baker’s bill would have directed $460 million in new funding to districts.
That may give the fiscally-cautious governor pause, but it’s hard to see him balking at the chance to be part of a bill-signing that advocates, district school officials, and legislative leaders say will give Massachusetts one of the most progressive school funding formulas in the country.
“The Baker-Polito administration is proud to have worked with lawmakers to increase public school funding by nearly a billion dollars since taking office and supports strong accountability measures to ensure taxpayer dollars go toward helping children succeed in underperforming schools. The governor will carefully review final legislation that reaches his desk,” said Baker spokeswoman Sarah Finlaw in a statement.
“I’m very hopeful that the governor will be happy with the final legislation and that he will sign it into law after it’s taken up and hopefully enacted by the House and Senate,” said Lewis.
The 1993 reform law that established the state school funding structure set out to determine a baseline level of funding needed for each district to provide students a quality education. Under a complex formula that considers the composition of the district’s school population and the fiscal capacity of local communities, the state pays a share of each district’s “foundation budget,” with the district responsible for paying the balance.Districts are free to spend above the minimum level, and most of them do. But many of the state’s poorest communities only fund schools at or near the minimum required by law. Over time, that foundation budget has failed to keep pace with costs, putting particular strain on school budgets in less affluent communities.
A 2015 state commission identified four big areas in which the formula was falling short: employee health care, services for English language learners and special education students, and education students from low-income households. The commission concluded that the state was underfunding districts by at least $1 billion a year.