Senate approves big boost in school aid

Reform advocates sound alarm over changes to accountability oversight

THE SENATE MOVED Massachusetts one step closer to a long-awaited revamp of the state’s 26-year-old education aid formula, unanimously passing a bill that would steer an additional $1.5 billion a year to schools after a seven-year phase-in. 

The 39-0 vote came after a long day of debate in which senators agreed to 13 amendments to the bill, one of which alarmed advocates of strong state accountability for how the new money is spent. 

“This is a historic day, something I know many of us have been looking forward to for years,” said Senate President Karen Spilka following the vote.

“This is what generational progress in educational equity and economic justice looks like,” said Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz of Boston during the floor debate.

The bill would ramp up $1.4 billion in new state aid to districts, with those educating large populations of low-income students in line to receive the largest increases in funding. It also calls for a $90 million increase in funding for special education transportation costs and establishes a $10 million fund for the state education commissioner to award grants to communities for innovative programs aimed at closing achievement gaps. 

Sen. Jason Lewis and Rep. Alice Peisch, co-chairs of the Legislature’s education committee, rolled out the legislation last month in a joint briefing together with Spilka and House Speaker Robert DeLeo. It represents the most comprehensive reform of the school funding formula since it was created as part of the 1993 Education Reform Act. Supporters said it would make good on the long eroded promise of the 1993 law that all students would have access to a quality education. 

The 1993 law combined a huge infusion of new state funding with curriculum standards and a robust accountability system aimed at driving improved student outcomes. The update to the funding formula approved by the Senate includes an accountability provision governing how the new money is to be spent, but that oversight was weakened by an amendment filed by Sen. Patricia Jehlen.

The original bill called for districts to develop three-year plans to address achievement disparities based on state-established targets. The amendment, which was adopted 38-0, allows school systems to use targets set by the district. The original bill also called on districts to outline the “evidence-based programs” they will use to address achievement gaps, including extended school days, wraparound services for students, expanded preschool programming, and several other interventions. The amendment makes incorporation of those approaches optional. It also appears to limit the state education commissioner’s ability to reject district plans to those covering the subset of underperforming or chronically underperforming schools.

Education reform advocates slammed the amendment as a blow to efforts to strike a balance between funding and accountability for how the significant new state education money is spent.

“The bill had three legs: funding, innovation, and accountability. The accountability leg just got snapped off,” said Liam Kerr, director of the state chapter of Democrats for Education Reform. “We’re deeply concerned that the delicate compromise that led to so much support for the bill is being undermined.”

Lewis could not be reached late Thursday to comment on the accountability changes.

The Senate did not adopt a proposed amendment to include a review of charter school issues in the bill, but instead approved formation of a working group to study those issues.

Legislative leaders have said the bill can be implemented without new taxes to pay for it, though they have conceded that an economic downturn could change that picture. 

The backing of leaders from both chambers has given the bill strong momentum.

The debate was thrown into some doubt late Wednesday when Gov. Charlie Baker’s office released a district-level analysis from the state education department of how the bill would impact state aid and required local spending by communities. The analysis showed that districts with large populations of low-income students would see huge gains in state aid, also known as Chapter 70 spending, while many other districts would see only modest growth in state funding. 

The governor’s office said release of the information was in response to requests from lawmakers and members of the media, but some saw it as an eleventh-hour effort to trip up the bill, which calls for substantially greater increases in education spending than Baker proposed in a bill he filed. 

“I think this is a deliberate effort to create some type of political chaos and undermine support for the bill,” said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. “They’re taking advantage of the fact that the Chapter 70 formula is a bit Kafkaesque to begin with, and 999 people out of 1,000, even in the public arena, don’t understand exactly how it works.”

Lewis said he has been meeting with individual senators to discuss the complicated context of the bill’s impact on school systems in their districts, but he criticized the governor’s office for releasing information that he said comes with lots of uncertainty.

“It is unfortunate that the Baker Administration has released inaccurate and misleading projections regarding the impact of the Student Opportunity Act on individual school districts,” Lewis said in a statement on Wednesday night. “Projections of Chapter 70 aid for each municipality for next fiscal year and future years are highly uncertain, based upon numerous factors including the rate of inflation, student enrollment changes, local economic conditions and other variables. I would urge municipal and school officials not to use these numbers in their budget planning.”

DeLeo and Spilka both released statements calling the projections shared by the administration “misleading.” 

One crucial variable in the funding formula is the amount of local school spending required by the state. The formula establishes a minimum level of required spending in each district. Responsibility for funding this “foundation budget” is shared by the state and local district, with wealthier communities obligated to fund a larger portion of the spending. 

Under the bill passed by the Senate, better-off districts would see a larger increase in their required local spending. However, legislative leaders say the majority of such districts already opt to spend above the required minimum for their schools and would therefore not necessarily be required to add new local tax dollars to school budgets. 

“The fact the required local contribution goes up does not have any fiscal impact on the vast majority of our communities,” Lewis said during the debate. “They already spend more with their local dollars than they are required to or will be required to in the future.”

Lewis said several dozen districts would be required to increase their local contribution under the bill, but argued that many of these are Gateway Cities such as Worcester and Lowell, where required local contribution will be matched by a 10-fold or greater increase in state aid.

The governor’s office defended the release of the information as an effort to respond to requests for more information. 

“Prior to casting their votes, multiple Legislators from both chambers and members of the media requested a public record analyzing the impact this legislation would have on their communities,” Tim Buckley, senior advisor to Baker, said in a statement. “The Administration satisfied those requests with the best possible analysis of this legislation making clear that the analysis is a projection based on the best available data.” 

Legislative leaders insisted that the last-minute release of the data only clouded the debate. 

“The value of these numbers without any context is highly questionable and the data, without baseline inflation amounts, is misleading,” said Peisch. “It is also interesting that the Administration has not publicly taken a position on the Student Opportunity Act but is prepared to release incomplete data on the possible financial impact of the bill.”

Baker has held off any comment on the bill. 

Sen. Bruce Tarr, the Republican minority leader in the Senate, pushed during Thursday’s debate for more information on the projected district impacts of the bill, but he and the chamber’s other five Republican members ended up supporting the bill.  

A 2015 state commission concluded that the state formula for funding school districts was shortchanging communities by $1 to $2 billion because costs had increased more rapidly than provided. The commission identified four areas where funding had not kept pace with costs: employee health care costs, special education, support for English language learners, and educating low-income students.  

A House-Senate conference committee last year could not agree on a final bill before the session ended, and legislative leaders and Gov. Charlie Baker have vowed to get a bill across the finish line this session.

Despite that shared goal, it’s now clear that Baker and legislative leaders are not on the same page. 

Baker filed a funding bill in January that would have increased state aid to districts by $460 million, according to an estimate by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center. The nearly $1 billion gap between his bill and the measure passed by the Senate underscores the tensions that are emerging between the administration the Legislature over the sweeping legislation. 

Debate over the funding impact of the bill on individual districts, as well its accountability provisions, is likely to heat up as the legislation moves to the House and there is more time for lawmakers and local officials to press for details of how the bill will affect each district. 

Peisch vowed to work with the House Ways and Means Committee to make data she believes is more reliable available to House members before the bill is considered there. 

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.

The House has not set a timetable yet for debate on the bill.

This story has been updated.