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Report: Nearly $1 billion gulf between two leading school-funding bills

Senator Jamie Eldridge listened to speakers on Beacon Hill on May 16, surrounded by protesters demanding greater funding for public education.
Senator Jamie Eldridge listened to speakers on Beacon Hill on May 16, surrounded by protesters demanding greater funding for public education.(Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/File)

A nearly $1 billion gulf exists between the two leading proposals on Beacon Hill to boost spending on public schools, according to a report being released Monday that sheds light on the immense challenges lawmakers face in trying to reach a compromise.

On the low end of the spectrum is Governor Charlie Baker’s proposal, which would gradually increase annual state aid by $1.5 billion over seven years, causing overall spending to hit $6.4 billion in 2026, according to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, a nonpartisan research group in Boston.

On the high end is the Promise Act — endorsed by Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, and other local officials and education advocates — which would add $2.4 billion over seven years, bringing overall aid to $7.3 billion in 2026.

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“If the Legislature does something more bold, like the Promise Act, they will need additional revenue,” said Colin Jones, senior policy analyst at the budget center. But such an investment, he said, could make a profound difference in the educational opportunities offered to students living in poverty, enabling their districts, for instance, to expand early childhood education and bring in more social-service programs.

“You get a once in-a-generation shot” at overhauling school funding, he said. “Let’s make sure we get it right.”

MassBudget, as the policy institute is commonly called, receives funding from more than two dozen philanthropic foundations and advocacy organizations, including teacher unions, which favor the Promise Act. The report was funded by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, a nonprofit based in Quincy.

The findings come as the school funding debate on Beacon Hill has been intensifying.

Last week, the New England Area Conference of the NAACP, the nonprofit Chelsea Collaborative, and parents from seven financially struggling districts, from Chelsea to Chicopee, filed a lawsuit in the Supreme Judicial Court seeking to remedy spending inequities between poor and affluent districts. A Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll last week found that nearly 60 percent of respondents were willing to pay higher taxes to reduce educational spending disparities.

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Meanwhile, the Joint Education Committee is drafting a consensus bill that is expected to fall somewhere between the two leading proposals. It could be released this month.

State Representative Alice Peisch, co-chair of the Joint Education Committee, said the numbers in the report are consistent with figures being used by the committee as members draft the bill.

However, she said, the cost of the Promise Act could be even higher because it would also broaden the definition of economically disadvantaged students, which would mean more of those students and more money to address their unique needs.

She said it would be hard to imagine the Promise Act being implemented on a seven-year timeline because it would require finding new revenue, coming at a time when other big-ticket items including transportation and affordable health care might need new investments too.

“I don’t know where we will end up,” she said, noting that she was optimistic a bill could come out this month or next month.

At the center of the debate is the state’s antiquated school-funding formula, developed under the 1993 Education Reform Act, which aims to funnel more state dollars to communities with limited financial resources and more students who are more expensive to educate, such as those requiring specialized services for disabilities and language barriers.

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While the 1993 formula initially reduced spending gaps between poor and affluent districts, its inflation mechanism failed to keep pace with the growing costs of providing a public education, causing gaps to widen again.

At the current pace of inflation, school spending would increase by $1 billion in seven years. In light of that, the report in a separate cost analysis subtracted the $1 billion from the two leading proposals to determine how much additional money would truly be required beyond the current inflation trajectory.

Baker’s proposal would end up spending $460 million more than the status quo increase in seven years, while the Promise Act increase would be $1.4 billion higher, according to the report.

The different price tags come down to how each proposal addresses four major areas that a legislative commission found were being shortchanged by the funding formula: the costs of educating students with disabilities, those with language barriers, and those living in poverty, as well as meeting the skyrocketing costs of employee health insurance.

Overall, the Promise Act is more aggressive, the report found, particularly in being far more generous in boosting per-student aid for those living in poverty. The bill also funnels more aid to local systems that lose a lot of state money to charter-school tuition to ensure that district schools still get a sufficient share.

The Promise Act could lead to big boosts for many districts. Chelsea, for instance, would see its school funding increase from $77.7 million this year to $118.9 million in seven years under the Promise Act, compared to $99.2 million under Baker’s proposal.

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In Boston, where much of the city’s school funding gets diverted to charter schools, aid would jump from $220 million this year to $323.9 million in seven years under the Promise Act, compared to $232.6 million in Baker’s proposal, essentially the same increase the city would receive if the Legislature doesn’t overhaul the funding formula, the report said.

Colleen Quinn, spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Education, said the governor’s proposal is fiscally responsible, designed to be funded with existing revenue and building upon previous increases in school spending. She said the office is still reviewing the report.

“Over the last four years, Governor Baker has signed budgets that increased state support for K-12 education by more than half a billion dollars.” she said in a statement. “Unlike other plans, the governor’s education funding plan is very specific about factors used to increase funding for low-income students, special education, English Language learners, and how many years it will take to fully implement each of these increases.”

Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Boston Democrat and lead sponsor of the Promise Act, said Baker’s proposal doesn’t make a big enough investment to close achievement gaps among students of different backgrounds. She said new revenue would not be needed immediately to implement the Promise Act, but she was encouraged by last week’s poll numbers on raising taxes for education.

“There is ample will among voters and taxpayers,” she said in an interview. “People know we are not getting the job done in Massachusetts.

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James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.