House unveils education bill — minus controversial Senate amendment

Restores state education commissioner authority over district plans

TWO WEEKS AFTER the Senate approved a sweeping education funding bill, but stripped out language giving the state authority to oversee how the money is spent, the House appears poised to restore those accountability provisions, setting the stage for a potential clash between the two chambers.

The House and Ways and Means Committee released a version of the bill this afternoon that essentially wipes out language approved by the Senate that loosened state oversight of how districts spend the $1.5 billion in new state aid the legislation commits to local schools. The House bill, which is slated for debate and vote on Wednesday, would restore the wording of the original version of the bill unveiled last month by House and Senate leaders. 

The joint endorsement of the bill by House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka, along with the House and Senate co-chairs of the education committee, represented an unusual display of bicameral agreement at the outset of consideration of a major piece of legislation. The bill won widespread praise, with lots of hope expressed that the Legislature would avoid a repeat of last year’s failed effort to pass to a major update of the school funding law. That process ground to a halt when House and Senate negotiators could not agree on the final language of a bill before the session ended. 

The new bill rolled out last month combined a huge increase in state aid, much of it targeted to districts with lots of low-income students, with a requirement that districts submit improvement plans every three years that set out measurable improvement goals for closing persistent disparities in achievement among student subgroups. The bill gave the state education commissioner authority to mandate revisions to district plans that don’t adequately outline how schools will employ a set of “evidence-based programs” to close achievement gaps, such as longer school days or years, added mental health services, or expanded early education programming.

When the Senate passed the bill earlier this month, however, it unanimously adopted an amendment, which had the strong backing of teachers unions, that removed the state education commissioner’s authority to reject district plans except in the case of the lowest-performing districts. 

Critics charged that the amendment undermined the balance struck in the original bill between money to update the state’s 26-year-old school funding formula and accountability for how it is spent.

Those advocates applauded the changes made by the House Ways and Means Committee, while the state’s largest teachers’ union decried the move.

“It clearly is the right thing to do, and I think the Speaker and his team deserve a lot of credit in not blinking and standing firm in understanding that with a bill with this much funding in it, you’ve got to have the guard rails and accountability that go with it,” said Edward Lambert, director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education.

Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, criticized the House version for restoring “some of the negative provisions” of the original bill. “It presumes that state bureaucrats know what students need better than parents, educators and democratically elected school committees,” she said in a statement.

DeLeo told reporters following his weekly meeting with Spilka and Gov. Charlie Baker that he supports the new House version and that it reflects the many weeks of “well thought out” work on the original bill by House education chair Alice Peisch and her Senate counterpart, Jason Lewis. 

“I thought it was a good compromise,” said DeLeo.

Peisch also endorsed the Ways and Means changes for returning to the language in the original education committee bill. “I have always thought 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,” she said.

Spilka said the amendment adopted by the Senate came after conversations with officials in the state education department, who “voiced some concerns” about the department’s capacity to oversee improvement plans for every district. 

She rejected the idea that the amendment watered down the bill’s accountability. “It changed it, but I don’t think it weakened it,” she said. 

But Keri Rodrigues, director of Massachusetts Parents United, a group that organizes low-income parents in urban districts, said taking any oversight authority away from the state would be a mistake. 

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

“We should spend more money — we all agree on that,” she said. “But we need to make sure we are spending it in the right way. We have been underserving black and brown children across the Commonwealth for generations.”