Education Funding Push on Beacon Hill
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON — About two dozen lawmakers and the mayors of Boston, Easthampton, Holyoke, Lawrence and Worcester joined advocates and educators Wednesday to call for passage of a new education funding reform bill that could deliver up to $2 billion more to Massachusetts schools.
"Let's enact this bill into law before the start of the next school year," Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz said at the crowded State House press conference.
The bill, which Chang-Diaz filed Wednesday morning, would update how the state's school funding formula accounts for costs of health insurance, special education, and teaching students who are low-income or learning English. It marks the first formal overture in this session's efforts around funding reform, an area where House and Senate lawmakers have been unable to find common ground for the past two terms.
Gesturing to the dozens of supporters who gathered around her Wednesday, Chang-Diaz said momentum has been building. She said she saw no reason lawmakers couldn't pick up where they left off, but now with more time to negotiate the details on "something of generational scale and statewide breadth."
"The momentum and the progress that was made last session didn't happen by accident," Chang-Diaz said. "It happened in large part because of this. Legislators on the House and the Senate side and local school committees and superintendents, they were hearing from exactly the people you see in this room and the people who stand behind them about the real pain that districts -- large, small, rural, urban, suburban -- have been experiencing for years."
Last year, House and Senate funding bill negotiators, led by Chang-Diaz and Rep. Alice Peisch, held their first meeting on July 24, a week before the end of formal legislative sessions, and did not strike a deal by the deadline.
Like last year's irreconcilable bills, Chang-Diaz's bill (SD 101) responds to the 2015 recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission, which found the funding formula underestimates the cost of education by $1 billion to $2 billion a year by inadequately accounting for major cost drivers. It also includes a new guaranteed minimum level of funding, which Boston Mayor Martin Walsh said will ensure the proposed change "affects every district in Massachusetts in a positive manner."
"This isn't about taking from one area and putting in another area," Walsh said. "This is about lifting everybody up because in the past it was too often, 'We're either going to invest here or there.'"
Boston officials had said that the previous Senate bill would not have given the state's largest school district the help it needs.
The 2018 House bill made formula changes to address two of the cost drivers, health insurance and special education, and called for research around the other two underfunded areas, the educating English language learners and low-income students. The Senate bill adjusted the formula for all four. Each bill passed its respective branch unanimously.
Rep. Aaron Vega, a Holyoke Democrat who cosponsored Chang-Diaz's bill, said he thinks there was "always an appetite" among his House colleagues to address low-income and English language learner elements.
"It was always about, how are we going to get it done. I think some people are fearful about the money, about the costs, the price tag possibly for it," Vega said after the press conference. He said, "We might not all be on the exact details, but we're on the same page that something needs to get done."
House Speaker Robert DeLeo, in a statement Wednesday, said the House plans to continue working on education funding reform. He said he has been talking with House lawmakers and met with "a group of key Foundation Budget Review Commission members in August."
Chang-Diaz, a Boston Democrat, pegged the cost associated with her bill at between $900 million and $2 billion, saying there are "a lot of variables" in the formula.
"It is my firm position and that of many others that we do not need new revenue to start the work of this bill, and that is why the sense of urgency," she said.
A week into the two-year legislative session, the questions of the best route to reform education funding and how to pay for it loom large on Beacon Hill.
Gov. Charlie Baker singled out school funding in his inaugural address, saying he planned to propose foundation formula updates with his fiscal 2020 budget, due later this month. James Peyser, Baker's education secretary, has said the governor's plan would "represent a significant new investment in our K-12 education system" and declined to comment on whether it would require new revenue.
A major new revenue source lawmakers had been counting on -- a surtax on incomes over $1 million, with proceeds dedicated to education and transportation -- was scuttled when the Supreme Judicial Court knocked it off November's ballot, ruling it improperly mixed unrelated subjects.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, House Speaker Robert DeLeo said it's not clear whether tax hikes will take shape this year, and Senate President Karen Spilka said there should be an "open and honest discussion as to what we want to accomplish and how we may end up paying for it."
"What the final answer will be is going to take some time," DeLeo said.
Without new revenues, lawmakers would need to rearrange other priorities within the state's $40 billion budget to steer additional money into schools.
Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP, said the state is "standing at a moral crossroads" as it faces an "educational fiscal crisis."
"We cannot keep balancing budgets on the backs of our Black and Latinx students any more than we should continue to leave behind our poor, working class, or ELLs," she said. "That's not who we are."
Liam Kerr, the state director of Democrats for Education reform, said it was notable to see Walsh on board with the new version of the bill.
"The big difference between July and now appears that Boston's in on the deal, so the big question is, what's the deal?" he told the News Service.
Kerr said school spending in Boston has grown more than twice as fast as in Lawrence over the past eight years and Lawrence now graduates Latino students at a higher rate, and called for "creative leadership to fix the problems plaguing districts like Boston whose kids get too little from current spending."
The Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, which previously asked lawmakers to ensure any formula change sets aside money dedicated to school innovation "that closes achievement gaps and increases college and career success," on Wednesday said its members looked forward to working with lawmakers "to ensure additional funding comes with provisions that accelerate student success."
"The $5.6 billion the state budgeted for K-12 education in FY19 is over 3 times higher than what was budgeted for transportation, 5 times more than local aid to cities and towns, and 32 times higher than the budget for economic development," the alliance said. "Given this level of investment, we must commit to ensure we leverage every dollar to meet student needs."
The American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, meanwhile, urged elected officials to "pay close attention" to an expected teacher strike in Los Angeles this week, saying schools across the state "suffer from overcrowded classrooms, limited music and arts education, and schools without nurses or librarians, just like they do in L.A."
"Teachers, parents, and students won't let another year pass without action on Beacon Hill," AFT Massachusetts President Beth Kontos said. "Longstanding underfunding of public schools has already prompted statewide teacher walkouts in Colorado, West Virginia, and Arizona. It could happen here if the investments our schools need aren't addressed soon."
Attorney General Maura Healey, whose office said she was reviewing Chang-Diaz's bill, said in a statement that many districts are struggling to provide the education their students need.
"Addressing that inequity, and addressing it now, is one of the most central challenges facing Massachusetts, and I stand with my partners in government to make the changes we need to give every student the best chance to learn and thrive," Healey said.
--Katie Lannan, State House News Service