Teachers, parents blast Legislature for inaction on school funding
Teachers, parents, and advocates blasted the Legislature on Wednesday for failing to overhaul the state’s antiquated education funding formula, potentially denying millions of dollars in additional aid to local schools while fanning momentum for a school-funding lawsuit.
Many placed blame squarely on House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo’s leadership team
, accusing them of blocking any resolution to the demands to overhaul the funding formula, and vowed they would not give up their quest for more money.
Kathleen Smith, superintendent of Brockton schools, said in an interview the Legislature had “a moral and ethical responsibility to do something for our students across the state,” but failed to follow through. Brockton, which successfully sued the state for more school funding decades ago, is working with Worcester and other districts on another potential lawsuit.
“When you talk about Massachusetts leading the nation, No. 1 doesn’t mean No. 1 for all students,” Smith said. “Unfortunately, kids in Brockton, Holyoke, Fall River, Lowell, Worcester, and elsewhere are the students who will be left behind.”
The legislative stalemate means many students in struggling districts this fall will go without such staples as librarians, field trips, and new books, while others will attend schools with fewer teachers. Brockton, for instance, will likely have 35 fewer teachers in the fall.
The legislation to steer more money to schools had detractors, though. Boston officials raised concerns during negotiations that the proposed changes could have cost Boston schools millions of dollars, and they lobbied for their own set of changes.
House negotiators also blamed new information that indicated estimated costs of various proposals being negotiated could be off by hundreds of millions.
The House and the Senate have been working for nearly three years on measures that would update the 25-year-old funding formula based on the recommendations of a legislative commission, which found the formula underestimated the cost of schooling by hundreds of millions of dollars.
The current formula is based on a so-called foundation budget that attempts to predict the cost of educating each district’s students and a community’s ability to pay, weighing such factors as property values, municipal revenue growth, and income levels.
But the formula’s inflation mechanism failed to keep pace with the growing cost of education, forcing local communities to shoulder more for employee health insurance, special education, and specialized programs for low-income students and those with language barriers.
Consequently, huge spending inequities between districts are widening. A Globe review this spring found that Brockton, where 70 percent of students are economically disadvantaged, spent $14,778 per student during the 2016-17 school year, while well-to-do Weston spent $24,458.
After the House and Senate passed differing versions of school funding bills in July, educators and advocates were hopeful a compromise could be reached by Tuesday night. But efforts by a conference committee fell apart, creating widespread disappointment and finger-pointing.
“House Speaker [Robert] DeLeo’s leadership team have betrayed a generation of students with yet another year of inaction and unwillingness to do what’s morally right,” Charlotte Kelly, executive director of the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance, a coalition of students, parents, and educators, said in a statement.
House members, who headed up negotiations on a compromise bill, defended their efforts in a statement, saying identifying spending levels for low-income students, English-language learners, and other areas proved more complicated than expected.
It remains unclear what role Boston’s concerns about the bills factored into the stalemate. Representative Chynah Tyler, a Boston Democrat, said she could not support a bill that pumped millions into other systems but would shortchange Boston.
“I am concerned that several schools in my district that are currently failing our students, including Madison Park Vocational Technical High School . . . would not have received the resources for those schools to move beyond the category of failing,” she said in a statement.
Boston has argued for years the state’s formula penalizes the city for having a large property tax base, strong municipal revenue growth, and spending well above state minimum levels on education.
Making matters worse for Boston, if the state increased the foundation budget levels on which the formula is based, the per-student tuition amounts to charter schools would have gone up, too. The state covers charter costs by redirecting state aid from a municipality to the charter schools their students attend, and in Boston most state aid already goes to the charters.
Boston officials had been lobbying for a cap on how much municipal revenue growth could be included in the formula, a move that would have guaranteed Boston and other systems in similar predicaments additional state aid but could have cost the state millions of more dollars.
A report issued in July by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, a left-leaning research organization in Boston, estimated the formula was underestimating the cost of providing a public education by about $1 billion a year.
Governor Charlie Baker on Wednesday defended the state’s funding of public education, noting his administration has invested over $500 million in additional funding in recent years.
“But there’s more work to do there and if we’re fortunate enough to be here in January, the next budget we’re going to file is going to put more money into the schools that were primarily of concern in that debate,” said Baker, who is running for reelection this fall.
Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Boston Democrat who cochairs the Joint Education Committee, said the conference committee negotiated until after 10 p.m. Tuesday.
“There are districts out there that are really desperate and can’t wait a year or two for more money,” she said in an interview.
Chang-Diaz issued a blistering statement shortly after midnight blaming House leadership for the stalemate.
“House leadership rejected all our offers, moved the goal posts, and then killed the bill completely — stunningly, by rejecting one of their own proposals. I’ve seen a lot in my 10 years in this building, but I’ve never seen so many rationalizations and double standards employed to avoid doing what’s right for kids,” she said.
Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh also criticized the way the legislation was shaping up, saying “the proposals under consideration at the end of this legislative session not only failed to increase education aid to Boston, they ultimately would have cost us millions of dollars every year at the expense of our students.’’
The biggest disagreement centered on increased funding for low-income students and English-language learners. The Senate fully embraced the increases, while the House sought a delay in order to further analyze those costs.
Representative Alice Peisch, a Wellesley Democrat who cochairs the Joint Education Committee, issued a statement with other House members of the conference committee that noted some estimates being debated may have been off by hundreds of millions of dollars.
“Negotiations were complicated by new information . . . and the exceptionally complex nature of recalculating various increments to the formula,” the statement said.
With the legislative session now over, lawmakers will need to start from scratch in January. Advocates said they will remain mobilized.
“We see this stalemate as an example of what happens when teachers are denied a seat at the table,” said Brandy Fluker-Oakley, executive director of Educators for Excellence-Boston, a teacher-led advocacy organization. “The conferees do not see the urgency of what is at stake — English language learners and students from low-income households are being left behind, and we do not have sufficient funding for proper mental health supports and in-school psychologists.”