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How much is enough? Lawmakers, governor clash over changes to school funding formula

Angelica DaSilva of Dorchester (right) attended a packed education hearing at the State House’s Gardner Auditorium.
Angelica DaSilva of Dorchester (right) attended a packed education hearing at the State House’s Gardner Auditorium.(David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)

In this year’s first major hearing in the debate over education funding on Beacon Hill, dozens of mayors, teachers, school officials, and even a quartet of New England Patriots players urged lawmakers to boost aid to urban districts struggling with growing populations of high-need students and steep budget cuts.

Brockton School Superintendent Kathleen A. Smith captured the argument of those demanding an overhaul of the state’s school funding formula, telling lawmakers that her city in 2017 spent just $1 on supplies per student, while wealthy Weston spent $275 per pupil.

“I am saddened and dismayed that after five years of coming before you more than a dozen times to advocate for our neediest students, I am once again asking you to act and update a 25-year-old funding formula that is broken and no longer serves the needs of the increasingly diverse student population in our Commonwealth,” Smith, whose district has been contemplating a lawsuit over school funding, told members of the Legislature’s joint committee on education during a packed hearing Friday.

All of Beacon Hill’s top leaders say they want to pass education funding legislation this year, and Friday’s hearing, called early in the Legislature’s session, is the latest sign they intend to tackle one of the most controversial issues in the state.

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People waited in line outside the Gardner Auditorium at the State House during a major hearing on education funding measures.
People waited in line outside the Gardner Auditorium at the State House during a major hearing on education funding measures.(David L Ryan/Globe Staff)

But the daylong hearing also exposed the fault lines that run through the debate. While everyone, from Governor Charlie Baker on down, agreed the state needs to overhaul the education formula and boost funding for struggling urban school districts, there’s not yet consensus on just how much more money the state should commit, and what other requirements should accompany that new cash to ensure it’s actually being used in ways that will help student performance.

Several members of the education committee made clear they believed Baker’s proposal, which he introduced earlier this year, does not do enough.

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“I think we need to be more aggressive,” Representative Bud L. Williams of Springfield told Baker.

Baker’s plan would increase the state’s so-called foundation budget, the complicated formula that determines the minimum cost to provide an adequate education for students, by $1.1 billion at the end of a seven-year phase-in period. But that $1.1 billion figure includes increased contributions from local districts as well as from the state. The Senate’s education committee chairman, Jason Lewis, said the Baker bill would increase state aid by about $500 million when fully implemented. A 2015 panel charged with looking at the funding formula urged the state to spend at least $1 billion more.

A competing bill sponsored by Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz proposed increasing state spending “north of $1 billion,” she said Friday.

Plus, critics charge, a portion of the increased spending Baker counts in his proposal would happen under current law regardless of what happens on Beacon Hill, because spending would go up via inflation.

“You’re taking credit for numbers that would be increasing anyway,” Senator Adam G. Hinds told Education Secretary James Peyser, prompting noises of agreement from an audience packed with supporters of the Chang-Diaz bill who wore red T-shirts. Patriots players Devin McCourty, Jason McCourty, Matthew Slater, and Duron Harmon all testified in favor of the Chang-Diaz bill, known as the Promise Act.

New England Patriots players Devin and Jason McCourty appeared at the State House to express their support of the PROMISE act, a proposal that would overhaul of public school funding.
New England Patriots players Devin and Jason McCourty appeared at the State House to express their support of the PROMISE act, a proposal that would overhaul of public school funding.(David L Ryan/Globe Staff)

Baker indicated he’d want to see more policy strings attached to state aid if lawmakers decide to pass legislation that would dramatically increase the state’s share of education funding.

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“If people want to pursue a more aggressive strategy . . . and dramatically amp up the state’s share, I think we need to have a whole new conversation about accountability because then you really are talking about the state becoming the primary funder of K-12 education in Massachusetts,” he told the lawmakers.

But if Baker’s bill is seen as too little by some lawmakers, the hearing underscored that the Chang-Díaz bill is seen by others as going too far.

A key difference in the two bills is how much each would boost funding for low-income students. The Chang-Díaz bill would ultimately send the districts with the highest concentration of poor students an additional $4,600 per low-income student. The Baker bill would give those districts about $470 more per low-income student, according to a legislative analysis.

There is also a House bill on the table, introduced by Representative Paul Tucker, but advocates say it doesn’t contain enough detail — particularly on how much more should be spent on low-income students — to compare it to the other two bills.

Representative Alice Peisch, the House education committee chair, openly challenged the Chang-Díaz bill. Directing a question to Representative Aaron Vega of Holyoke, a lead sponsor of the bill, Peisch questioned the wisdom of provisions in the bill that would send “substantial funding” to districts that already have high per-pupil spending.

A hearing on education funding measures was packed on Friday.
A hearing on education funding measures was packed on Friday. (David L Ryan/Globe Staff)

While she did not name it, Peisch’s comments appeared to be directed at Boston, which would benefit from a provision in the Promise Act that changes how the school funding formula accounts for charter school tuition reimbursements. The change would guarantee that Boston and other districts with a large numbers of students attending charter schools would get a minimum level of state aid for the students that remain in the district; currently most of Boston’s state aid gets redirected to charter schools Boston students attend.

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“We only have so much money regardless of where we land,” said Peisch. “My concern is any dollar that goes to a city other than a gateway city is one that doesn’t get to a gateway city.”

In his testimony, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh defended the city’s position that it, too, needs more money from the state, citing the high proportion of poor students and students of color it serves. “It’s not a handout, it’s a partnership embedded in our state’s constitution,” he said.

But critics say the Promise Act provision is tantamount to having the state give the city money for students it is not educating.

Peyser’s office estimates that, fully implemented, the charter-related provision would mean roughly $75 million more in state aid for Boston each year, and a total of about $153 million more going to districts with charter school students. Baker’s bill addresses this issue differently and would give Boston about $16.5 million more than current law.

Chang-Díaz pushed back, reminding Peisch that the state sends a minimum level of aid to even the very wealthiest districts, many of which have few if any poor or other high-needs students. “If we’re going to continue to do that, then we also need to make sure we are meeting minimum benchmarks” in the state partnership with local municipalities, she said.

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Victoria McGrane can be reached at victoria.mcgrane@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac.