Baker calls for more school funds — and accountability
Plan sets stage for big Beacon Hill education debate
THE STATE’S SCHOOL reform efforts, beginning with the landmark 1993 Education Reform Act, have always involved a combination of spending increases and new accountability measures aimed at helping drive school improvement, especially among students at the bottom end of the achievement gap.
Gov. Charlie Baker’s education funding proposal, unveiled on Wednesday alongside his 2020 budget plan, includes both elements. But in a sign of how the coming debate on Beacon Hill may get framed, critics say it falls short on spending, while going overboard on new accountability power it would give the state to exercise control over struggling schools.
Baker is recommending $1.1 billion in new education spending, ramped up over seven years. Administration officials say the spending increase, which would amount to $3.3 billion in new education funding by 2026 as a result of inflation, would make good on the recommendations of a 2015 state commission that concluded Massachusetts was underfunding schools by $1 to $2 billion.
“Our proposal is the whole package: more money and more reforms to make sure we’re using this funding to accelerate learning in our schools that struggle the most to give our kids the education they deserve,” Baker said at a press briefing on Wednesday afternoon.
Administration officials said more than 85 percent of the new spending would go to high-needs districts with large populations of low-income students and English language learners.
The proposal “fully implements the recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission,” Baker said.
But education advocates took strong exception to that claim. The governor’s plan “fails to even come close to honoring the guidelines of the Foundation Budget Review Commission with respect to high-poverty districts and closing opportunity gaps,” said a statement issued by a coalition of lawmakers and other advocates. “This proposal shorts each disadvantaged child by thousands of dollars compared to the recommendations of that bipartisan commission.”
The statement came from a group of lawmakers, teachers’ unions, local officials, and education advocates. It included Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, co-chair of the Legislature’s education committee, who earlier this month unveiled an education spending plan she said follows the commission recommendations.
Education Secretary Jim Peyser said the foundation budget commission did not settle on a fixed recommended boost in funding for low-income students but instead proposed a range, the threshold for which he said the governor’s plan meets.
Marie-Frances Rivera, interim president of the left-leaning Massachusetts Budget & Policy Center, applauded the governor for stepping into the funding conversation, but questioned whether his plan goes far enough. She also criticized the seven-year phase-in for new spending, saying “the timeline should be accelerated.”
The governor’s proposal also includes several provisions aimed at driving improvement in struggling districts and schools. A fund used by the state education commissioner to target districts implementing school reforms would be increased from $18.9 million this year to $26.5 million. Meanwhile, the plan calls for a $50 million School Improvement Trust Fund, using one-time revenue from changes to tax collection procedures, which the education commissioner would also have discretion to allocate to low-performing schools.
Peyser said the provision is meant to ensure that the state and districts are “on the same page” when it comes to plans to turn around struggling schools, and he described it as “a pretty targeted tool, not a sledgehammer.”
He said only funds for district administrative functions would be held back, not any money for classrooms, and the funding would remain earmarked for that district and distributed once an agreement is reached with the commissioner’s office on a plan for implementing reforms.
“We need to make sure the resources we’re investing are having the greatest impact on kids who need them the most,” said Peyser.
“This proposal enables the [state education] department to have a stronger hand in guiding schools that have continued to struggle year over year, allowing for a second set of eyes to help them improve,” said Riley, who served as the state-appointed receiver for the Lawrence Public Schools before being named commissioner last year. “I personally have seen how the state can be a successful partner with schools and districts and we owe it to our students to really dig into this work.”
The state’s largest teachers’ union, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said it was “deeply troubled” by provisions in the governor’s proposal that would let Riley withhold funds from a district. “This appears to be a lever the state could use to demand that districts implement the detrimental policies — perhaps even privatization schemes — that officials such as Education Secretary Jim Peyser have long supported,” said a statement from the union. “These could include forcing districts to accept new charter school seats or establishing takeover zones, rather than implementing changes that educators and parents in the district believe are needed.”How the new accountability proposals will be received in the Legislature is unclear. But Chang-Diaz, in unveiling her funding bill earlier this month, sounded skeptical of any proposal the governor might offer that would tie funding to district reforms, saying such a move would mean “leaving some kids behind.”
Using terms that teachers’ unions and other funding advocates have adopted, she said education efforts this year should focus on the “owed money” that districts have been shortchanged by the failure of the 1993 funding formula to keep pace with costs.