For months Beacon Hill leaders have been saying overhauling the state’s troubled education funding formula is one of the most urgent tasks before them, but as the height of summer approaches, the Legislature has produced little outward evidence of progress.
Policy makers say movement is happening behind the scenes. The House and Senate chairs of the Joint Education Committee continue to meet regularly to try to hash out the thorny policy problems that derailed a similar effort last year. And both chambers have approved budgets that include down payments on a future education bill that would pump more money into struggling urban districts.
“I know that they’re working really hard, I know that they are getting closer as time goes on,” Senate President Karen Spilka told reporters Monday.
But time is running short for the two chairs, Representative Alice Peisch of Wellesley and Senator Jason Lewis of Winchester, to produce a consensus bill by the end of June — a goal Lewis said they were aiming for last month (Peisch was less committal at the time, calling a June target “within the realm of possibility”). And the longer it takes for them to complete their work, the less likely the state House and Senate will be able to act before lawmakers scatter for late summer vacations.
Outside advocates, some lawmakers, and Governor Charlie Baker, too, had started the year with hopes that Beacon Hill could complete work on a funding overhaul bill during the current calendar year, perhaps even before the start of the new school year.
But Peisch and Lewis made no promises on the timeline Monday night during a discussion on the issue hosted by the Edward M. Kennedy Institute. Instead, Peisch emphasized that the Legislature is at the beginning of a two-year session.
“I can say that we are so much further along [now] than we were at the end of last session,” when negotiations between House and Senate lawmakers on a similar bill collapsed, Peisch said. “So I’m optimistic that we will come out with something that gets through this session.”
In a brief interview after the panel, Lewis acknowledged that it was unlikely they could produce a bill by the end of this month. “But we’re getting very close, at least in the committee” he continued, and that for the Senate, getting a bill to Baker’s desk this calendar year remains the goal. Among other reasons, it would complicate next year’s budget process, which kicks off in January, if the education funding debate bleeds into 2020, he said.
Baker, who underscored his focus on the issue by introducing his version of a revamped formula back in January, seemed satisfied with the pace of work on the issue. Figuring out details such as how many years over which to phase in new spending, what “accountability measures” are needed, and how to ensure students in under-performing schools can be successful “are big complicated questions,” Baker told reporters Monday.
“I consider this — and I’m sure they do too — to be one of the most important things that’s going to happen in this session, and I’m sure they want to get it right,” he said.
At issue is the 1993 landmark Education Reform Act, which created what’s known as the foundation budget. It’s a formula that attempts to predict the minimum cost for each district to educate its students and how much state aid each community should get toward that budget.
The formula was supposed to be updated regularly, but lawmakers failed to do so. The result: the current formula failed to keep pace with inflation, forcing communities to pay more for health insurance and special education, among other programs, which in turn created stark disparities across the state among towns that could afford to boost spending, and poorer communities that could not.
A 2015 legislative commission concluded that the current formula is shortchanging K-12 education in the state by $1 billion or more a year.
The key unresolved issue under discussion by Peisch and Lewis is how much more state aid to pump into districts that educate high numbers of low-income students.
The panel discussion touched on another major fault line in the education debate – what, if any, benchmarks should be tied to new money given to school districts. Teachers unions and some other advocates don’t want to see onerous new conditions placed on state aid.
Baker and members of his administration, on the other hand, prefer the final bill to include some mechanisms to ensure additional state funding is used wisely. Peisch echoed that view.
““If we’re going to be asking the taxpayers to support what could be upwards of you know a billion and a half additional dollars, they have to have some sense that this money is going to serve the purpose that we are all committed to here,” she said.
James Peyser, Baker’s education secretary, also speaking Monday night, offered a warning to advocates and lawmakers who say the final bill needs to boost funding far beyond what Baker has proposed.
“Whatever comes out of this process, it needs to be a promise that we can keep, it needs to be a fully funded commitment,” Peyser said.
An audience member chimed in: “Tax the rich!”