Beacon Hill looks to tackle school funding formula in new session
The year on Beacon Hill is starting with renewed momentum to overhaul the state’s troubled, 26-year-old school funding formula, which critics say now perpetuates inequality in education by short-changing some communities and favoring others.
After efforts to rewrite the formula collapsed at the end of the Legislature’s formal session last July, Governor Charlie Baker kicked off his second term last week vowing that Massachusetts “can and must do better” to bridge the gap between urban and suburban school performance.
He said he plans to file a bill to rewrite the funding formula — a signal that he is interested in going further than the changes he has proposed in the past. House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo has voiced support for tackling the issue. Senate President Karen E. Spilka says it’s a top priority for her chamber.
Seeking to accelerate Beacon Hill’s often glacial pace, Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz on Wednesday rolled out a revamped version of the Senate’s funding bill from last session alongside four dozen legislators, mayors, and other advocates gathered behind the podium.
“There are no more excuses. . . . There are no more wait till next years. It is time to keep our promise,” said Chang-Diaz, referring to the pledge she says the 1993 education overhaul law made to fund an adequate education for every student.
State Representative Alice Peisch, a Wellesley Democrat who cochairs the Joint Education Committee, said in a statement to the Globe that the House “remains committed to implementing a plan this year” to carry out recommendations issued in 2015 by a legislative commission tasked with reviewing the foundation budget for the state’s school funding system. That commission found the formula had been underestimating the cost of schooling by hundreds of millions of dollars and set out several recommendations to fix it.
Noting he had convened a group of members of that commission in August, DeLeo said Wednesday that the House “will continue to prioritize its commitment to funding and supporting our schools.”
The broad consensus that an overhaul is needed has many players in the debate encouraged — albeit cautiously, in some cases — that lawmakers may just be able to carry legislation over the finish line this time around.
“It is a good sign that all three branches on Beacon Hill now seemed to have raised this to a high level of priority,” said Paul Reville, an education secretary under then-governor Deval Patrick who has been following the debate closely.
Critics say the state formula for doling out aid has failed, by a wide margin, to keep pace with the actual cost of providing a public education. Real estate taxes fund most of the rest of school spending, a fact that further locks in inequality of opportunity, because poorer municipalities simply have lower property values.
The result, as the Globe reported last year, is that places like Worcester and Brockton struggle. Brockton spent just $1.28 per student on classroom supplies during the 2016-17 school year, while Weston, one of the wealthiest towns, provided $275 per student.
Teachers unions and others say fixing the funding situation would make good on the bargain struck in 1993.
“We are underfunding education on the backs of our most vulnerable children, betting on which of them will figure out how to survive,” said Tanisha M. Sullivan, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP. “We’re standing at a moral crossroad. If we truly value our children and education, we must come together to deliver on the promise.”
Other advocates say struggling schools need more than just an influx of cash. Groups including the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, a business-backed advocacy organization, and Massachusetts Parents United, representing urban district parents, say they want some of the money used to encourage new approaches to boost student performance.
Saying that “progress isn’t just about money,” Baker signaled in his inaugural speech that his proposal would seek to direct at least some additional funding to specific programs or practices such as acceleration academies and after-school programs.
“I agree there’s a need for more money, but pouring more money into broken systems doesn’t mean the money will be invested in the right places for the most high-need students,” said Marty Walz, a former House chair of the Education Committee who worked on the 1993 law.
Another potential stumbling block is the price tag. The lack of agreement on what the legislation would cost to implement was among the reasons House and Senate negotiators failed to compromise last summer.
Chang-Diaz said estimates of her bill’s cost range from $900 million to $2 billion.
“It depends on exactly how we shape the bill, and it also depends a lot on things that are unknowable to us today, as with any other endeavor of large scale in government or the private sector,” she said.
For instance, demographic changes —
say, more students for whom English is not their native language — could cause the price tag to climb.
The legislation would give the Legislature flexibility on how quickly to phase in a new funding formula; at the press conference, Chang-Diaz described a range of four to seven years to fully put it in place.
Boston’s role in the debate is a complicating factor. City officials were not supportive of last year’s legislation, but Mayor Martin J. Walsh participated in Wednesday’s press conference.
“It’s time to put our differences aside. It’s time to not have fights about education funding. It’s time to get together,” Walsh said. “There’s going to be more than this bill filed, but we need to come together and come up with a bill that works.”
Chang-Diaz and her coauthors won the mayor’s support with several changes, in particular new language that aims to ensure Boston and other municipalities would still receive state aid for their school systems after the state diverts millions earmarked for the city to fund charter schools there.
Without changes, Boston in two years is likely to face a situation in which all of its so-called Chapter 70 education aid would go to charter schools, forcing the city to rely on its own revenue to fully fund its school system.
But those changes could very likely raise objections from other players, including some House members who don’t believe Boston deserves additional aid, given its vast property wealth, among other factors.
Amid all the challenges and complexity, Chang-Diaz pointed to another factor in favor of getting a bill passed.
“We were very compressed at the end of the legislative session,” with a mere week to hash out a compromise of House and Senate versions of the legislation. “We’re going to have more time.”