Educators, legislators urge larger share of state aid for education

Posted Apr 21, 2017 at 2:01 AM
By Katie Lannan, State House News Service
BOSTON — Educators, parents and lawmakers are urging support for a bill that would update the state’s school funding formula to send more money to districts, highlighting the bill’s backing from a variety of different groups from across the state.
“This is the largest, most diverse coalition of education reformers that I have ever seen gathered in one place representing as many organizations,” Massachusetts Association of School Committees executive director Glenn Koocher said earlier this month at a gathering.
The bill filed by Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, would implement the 2015 recommendations of a state commission that found the current funding formula, known as the foundation budget, underestimates the cost of education by $1 billion to $2 billion per year.
“I think everyone agrees, like you can’t just flip a switch and turn on $2 billion,” Chang-Diaz told the News Service. “But if you spread it out over anywhere between five and 10 years, that is within the realm of the achievable for Massachusetts.”
The push for the bill came as House Democrats released a fiscal 2018 budget bill that calls for the type of limited increases in local aid that cities and towns have become accustomed to in recent years.
Paul Reville, who served as education secretary under Gov. Deval Patrick and was a member of the Foundation Review Commission, said Massachusetts has not delivered on all the promise of the 1993 law, including its financing provisions, when it “should really be talking about the next grand bargain here.”
“School districts have been forced to rob Peter to pay Paul, and the educational program has suffered as a result of it,” Reville said. “We find ourselves now a quarter of a century into education reform very proud of our achievements as a commonwealth — we lead the nation, lead the world in some categories — but still, we failed to fulfill the promise of education reform, which was to educate all of our children, and when we said all we meant all, all means all, to high levels of achievement.”
Local education aid, known as Chapter 70 money, has increased an average of $126 million per year from the 2011 fiscal year, including a $106 million hike recommended Monday in the new House Ways and Means budget bill.
Gov. Charlie Baker’s 2018 budget proposal included $4.72 billion in Chapter 70 aid, an increase of $91.4 million over this year’s appropriation.
Under one potential timeframe for implementing the changes called for in Chang-Diaz’s bill —the seven-year schedule used in education funding legislation that passed the Senate last year — schools would see an increase of approximately $200 million in state funding in the first year.
The Foundation Budget Review Commission called for updates to the funding formula to better account for rising fixed costs in health care and special education, and said the formula underestimates the cost of educating low-income students and English language learners.
The bill calls for a multi-year phasing in of the commission’s recommendations, charging the administration and finance secretary and House and Senate budget writers with meeting annually to determine an implementation schedule. It does not specify a timeframe or funding source.
Chang-Diaz, who joined the Legislature in 2009, said her bill could follow a similar path as the 1993 education reform law that established the funding formula.
“We made a decision on a values level, on a constitutional obligation level that we’re doing this, and then we exercised tremendous discipline and commitment over the ensuing seven to 10 years to elevate the on-ramp schedule,” she said. “But it was never a forgone conclusion that it was going to happen or that it was going to be easy, but we just did it because we believed in it.”
Sen. Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat cosponsoring the bill, said implementing the commission’s recommendations would require more revenues.
“I think what’s interesting right now is that Governor Baker, in his budget, actually proposed about $600 million in new revenues through the employer assessment so, you know, are the House and Senate going to propose revenues given that the governor did that?” he said. “It might be a different form, it might be a form of taxes, but if we’re not going to increase revenue in our budgets, that means we’re not only not going to properly fund the beginning of the Foundation Budget Review Commission, but we’re not going to be able to properly fund regional school transportation, special education and Chapter 70 aid.
A total of 82 lawmakers are signed on to Chang-Diaz’s bill — 25 Senate Democrats, 47 House Democrats and 10 House Republicans.
The Senate has twice passed versions of the bill, once as part of legislation that tied major new investments in education to an increase in the cap on charter schools and once as an amendment to its fiscal 2017 budget.
The charter bill passed the Senate 22-13 and was never taken up by the House. The budget amendment, which Chang-Diaz said at the time had 22 cosponsors, did not survive after deliberations before a six-person House-Senate conference committee.
In the months since those Senate votes, Chang-Diaz said, several advocacy groups have adopted foundation budget reform as a priority and have been talking to their respective bases about the issue.
“This has been a long time coming, it’s been a long time building, and this consensus is unlike anything we’ve seen in a really long time,” she said.
Organizations whose support was touted at the press conference include the Boston Student Advisory Council, Educators for Excellence, EdVestors, Collaborative Parent Leadership Action Network, the Suburban Coalition, the Boston Higher Ground Coalition, Phenomenal Moms Boston, the Worcester Education Collaborative, and associations representing superintendents, school business officials, vocational administrators, regional schools, secondary school administrators and elementary school principals.
Chelsea Superintendent Mary Bourque, the president of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said her district each year must cut “more and more of what makes us a successful school system,” such as after-school programs and tutoring. This year, the Chelsea schools had to close a budget gap of more than $5 million, she said.
Bourque said the bill “shows that we have the courage to not just acknowledge the severe underfunding of public education, but finally we have the courage to take action.”
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