Education bill hinges on accountability tussle
Role of state in overseeing spending at issue
THE SWEEPING EDUCATION funding bill, versions of which have cleared both branches of the Legislature, is now in the hands of a House-Senate conference committee, which will work to reconcile differences between the two chambers over the state’s oversight role. But it turns out there are not only gaps between the bills to be ironed out, there is disagreement on just how significant those disparities are.
The lead Senate negotiator, Sen. Jason Lewis, the co-chairman of the Legislature’s education committee, says the differences are fairly minor. But his House counterpart, Rep. Alice Peisch, who co-chairs the education panel, says changes to the bill introduced by the Senate go to the heart of the delicate balance lawmakers are trying to strike between a huge infusion of new funding for schools and the right degree of state oversight on how it is spent.
In September, in an unusual display of bicameral unity this early in the process, Lewis and Peisch, together with House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka, unveiled legislation that would steer $1.5 billion in new state aid to school districts after a seven-year phase in. The bill received widespread praise from a broad range of education stakeholders, a rare feat in today’s often polarized world of education policy debates.
But a significant crack in that unity emerged when the Senate debated the bill in early October and adopted an amendment that stripped out language giving the state education commissioner broad authority over improvement plans each school district is required to submit as part of the big boost in state funding.
The bill called for all districts to submit three-year improvement plans to the state, with the state education commissioner authorized to reject those deemed inadequate and require a revised plan. The Senate removed that authority, along with making several other smaller changes to the bill. The version it adopted says the commissioner “may” recommend changes to a plan, but it only requires changes in districts with underperforming or chronically underperforming schools.
“The intent was to clarify that we want more local engagement,” said Sen. Patricia Jehlen, the amendment sponsor, who said heavy state oversight would undercut efforts to get local officials and community members more involved in shaping district plans.
“This is a whole new level of bureaucracy at the Department of Education that will be needed to review these plans,” said Beth Kontos, president of the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. “We don’t want the plan to be rejected when we go to all that trouble,” she said of local input into the improvement plans.
When the bill moved to the House, the original language was restored, setting the stage for negotiations among a six-member conference committee, appointed this week, which Peisch and Lewis will helm.
“It seems to me that when we’re making an investment of $1.5 billion, it is really important that we have some level of oversight,” said Peisch. She said the bill, as originally crafted, “struck the right balance between recognizing the importance of local control” and what she describes as a “modest level of oversight” from the state.
Lewis said the some of the Senate changes were prompted by conversations he had with officials in the state education department, and he questioned the department’s capacity to carry out comprehensive reviews of plans submitted by 327 districts. “We thought it made more sense to say the commissioner doesn’t need to put the same level of review into each and every plan” and that “the most important focus should be on schools and districts that are already underperforming,” said Lewis.
Spilka echoed that view last week, saying officials in the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education expressed concerns about the original language, and the Senate changes were aimed at making the bill “more consistent with DESE’s practice and capacity.”
The education department declined repeated requests in recent days to comment on the bill or on any conversations officials have had about it with lawmakers. But at Tuesday’s monthly meeting of the state board of education, education commissioner Jeff Riley was asked by a board member for his view on the issue of state oversight of district plans. Riley said he “would love to be able to have some oversight” of the plans, according to the State House News Service. He added that legislative leaders “are aware of our position.”
Gov. Charlie Baker has held off any broad reaction to the funding bill, but his office has said he opposes the Senate changes, which Baker views as weakening state oversight. “Gov. Baker looks forward to lawmakers continuing to shape this important legislation and believes strong accountability measures are essential to ensure taxpayer dollars go toward helping children succeed,” his office said in a statement.
The Senate amendment is “a significant change,” said Paul Reville, the state education secretary under Gov. Deval Patrick, who called it a “backdoor” way of relieving districts of accountability pressure. He said the original bill seemed to provide a “reasonable” level of oversight without being unduly prescriptive.
Reville said concerns about the state education department’s capacity to thoroughly oversee all district plans, however, are legitimate, and added that without additional resources Riley would probably end up focusing more on districts with lower student achievement. “As he knows from experience, the state role, if properly executed, can make a difference in those kinds of places,” Reville said, referring to Riley’s previous role as state-appointed receiver for the Lawrence schools.
Peisch said the bill does have “the potential to require more capacity from DESE, but that’s something we deal with in the budget, not in this bill.”
The House appears to have the upper hand in negotiations, as it’s pushing to return the bill to the language agreed to by House and Senate leaders as well as the joint education committee.
The legislation is one of the most eagerly anticipated bills of the session, and the deliberations now underway come more than a year after a similar effort died when House and Senate negotiators couldn’t reach final agreement on a plan to update the state’s 1993 education funding formula.
Pressure has been building on lawmakers to update the formula since a 2015 state commission reported that districts are being shortchanged by at least $1 billion because the financing rubric has not kept pace with rising costs. The bill now being finalized would direct a large share of the new state dollars to struggling urban districts that currently spend near the state minimum and educate lots of low-income students.
Although the difference over state oversight represents an unexpected hurdle, the lead negotiators in charge of resolving the issue say they have no doubt it will get done this time.“We’ll have some conversations over the course of the next few weeks, and I’m very confident that we will reach agreement,” said Peisch.
Lewis said he’s very optimistic that the conference committee can “work out any of the modest differences, and hopefully we can do it fairly quickly.”