House approves $1.5b education bill

Accountability issue must be resolved with Senate


THE MASSACHUSETTS HOUSE on Wednesday night unanimously approved a seven-year plan to pour $1.5 billion into the state’s public education system, moving legislation that has been the subject of persistent and passionate advocacy a step closer to the governor’s desk.

Planned investments to support low-income students and English learners are a focal point of the bill, which Education Committee House Chair Alice Peisch called “a massive step toward a more equitable funding structure.” The investments are not accompanied by any new revenue sources and legislators plan to ramp up K-12 education spending with existing funding streams, an approach that could imperil other state services.

A version of the bill cleared the Senate earlier this month, and differences between the two branches mean uncertainty remains over what a final bill will look like and how long it may take lawmakers to produce one.

While lawmakers last session couldn’t move similar proposals out of a House-Senate conference committee, representatives nonetheless described their vote on Wednesday as historic and a cause for celebration.

“Today, even though Massachusetts is the first in the nation when it comes to education, there’s a huge achievement gap that we need to close, and this bill will level the playing field and allow us to do just that,” Rep. Tram Nguyen, an Andover Democrat who called the bill “an investment in our collective future.”

Though Senate President Karen Spilka, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and Education Committee Chairs Peisch and Sen. Jason Lewis rolled out a committee bill jointly and highlighted the consensus behind it, the bills diverged in each branch as they moved through the legislative process. The House and Senate bills will need to be reconciled before lawmakers ship a final version to Gov. Charlie Baker for review.

A significant difference is the way the bills handle plans that school districts must prepare outlining steps they will take to close achievement gaps. The Senate adopted a Sen. Patricia Jehlen amendment that removed the education commissioner’s authority to require that districts revise plans found to be inadequate, saying instead that the commissioner “may recommend plan amendments.”

The House Ways and Means Committee redrafted the bill to return to the original Education Committee language giving the commissioner power to order new plans. Rep. James Hawkins of Attleboro offered — and then withdrew — a closely watched amendment that mirrored the Senate language.

Rep. Joseph Wagner, speaking in opposition to Hawkins’ amendment, compared the state’s role as an entity that provides resources for education to his providing the car that his teenage children drive. He said that in the same way he expects his kids to adhere to a curfew when out in the car, the commissioner should expect accountability from districts.

Rep. Michael Moran said the requirement that the plans be submitted to the education department is important because “funding increases alone” won’t guarantee improvements for students, and “the more professional educators we have looking at and trying to solve a problem will only mean better chances of success for kids.”

Gov. Charlie Baker had said the Jehlen amendment “weakened” the committee bill, but Spilka on Monday stood by her branch’s changes, saying they “made the bill even stronger.” She said Jehlen’s amendment arose after senators and staff spoke to people at the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education who had “voiced some concerns” about the original accountability language and the amendment “was adopted to make it more consistent with DESE’s practice and capacity.”

Peisch said after the House’s final vote on the bill that she was “optimistic” the two branches could work out their differences. She said she was not yet sure if the legislation would be bound for a conference committee.

Peisch said she and Lewis worked for “many months in order to get something that we thought would have broad support.”

“I’m very gratified to see that it, in fact, does have that level of support,” she said.

Praising the overall bill as a “once-in-a-generation change,” Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy said her union “will keep the pressure on in support of the Senate’s language” if the bill goes to a conference committee. Najimy said the Senate language “promotes greater input from parents and educators — the real experts on what students need.”

Charlotte Kelly, executive director of the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance, said both branches “have passed the most progressive school funding legislation in the country” and expressed hope that “any conference committee reaches a quick consensus and sends this bill to the governor to sign.”

Nearly four years ago, a state panel called the Foundation Budget Review Commission found that the current funding formula underestimates the cost of education by $1 billion annually by inadequately accounting for expenses associated with low-income students, English learners, special education and employee health benefits.

Since that report’s release, the House and Senate have been unable to agree on an approach to education funding reform in each of the last two legislative sessions. The collapse of negotiations on school finance bills at the end of last session prompted a renewed push from advocates this year, including the filing of a lawsuit alleging that chronic underfunding has created unconstitutional disparities in public education.

Rep. Aaron Vega of Holyoke said this year’s bill is the “silver lining” to the failed talks of 2018, calling it “10 times the bill that it was last year.”

Peisch, a Wellesley Democrat, told her colleagues that the bill’s primary goal is to implement the Foundation Budget Review Commission recommendations. It also features provisions aimed at alleviating other challenges districts face, she said, like raising the cap on the number of projects approved by the Massachusetts School Building Authority, fully funding charter school tuition reimbursements over a three-year period, and including funding for guidance and psychological services.

“This bill, however, does not have an answer for every lingering question and concern about educational policy in Massachusetts,” Peisch said, adding that a proposed rural schools commission and task force on required local contributions could help inform future legislation.

Most of the amendments representatives filed were withdrawn without public discussion.

Similar to the process the Senate took ahead of its debate, House leadership shared estimates of district-level financial impacts with representatives but not with the media or the public.

Rep. Colleen Garry, a Democrat who told her colleagues around 5:30 p.m. that she was “still struggling very much” with how to vote on the bill, said the numbers for her district — the Merrimack Valley suburbs of Dracut and Tyngsborough — were “difficult to look at.”

Garry said the nearby city of Lowell stands to receive far more money from the bill than her two towns would, and that not enough discussion is taking place about the increased local contributions that will be required from taxpayers.

Rep. Daniel Carey of Easthampton, one of six lawmakers who used their first official floor speech to tout the bill, said that he would tell those who do not support the bill because not all districts will receive the same level of funding boosts that, “The old adage of a rising tide lifting all ships is true.”

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He said the bill may help a child “of limited opportunities” to discover their passion and find happiness and fulfillment from a career as a teacher, a nurse or a tradesperson.

“Today, Mr. Speaker, we fund miracles,” Carey said.