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Report backs Governor Baker tying strings to new education dollars

Governor Baker.
Governor Baker. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)

Governor Charlie Baker’s proposal to overhaul state education aid would provide enough money to reduce the spending inequities between affluent and poor districts and takes appropriate steps to tie that money to specific efforts to boost student achievement, according to a report released Tuesday morning.

“Some additional tweaking [of the funding formula] is warranted, but the fact remains that wholesale changes are not in order,” according to the report by the Pioneer Institute, a Boston think tank that has produced research supportive of such educational ideas as school choice and standardized testing.

Judicious use of public dollars is paramount, the report warned, because the state faces another looming financial crisis: the unfunded liability for the teacher retirement systems, which collectively amount to $27 billion. The report faulted state officials for setting up a payment schedule that leaves way too much debt for the later years.

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The report, “The Next Chapter of Education Funding in Massachusetts,” comes as the Legislature’s Joint Education Committee is drafting a consensus bill that aims to resolve a nearly $1 billion divide between Baker’s proposal and another, called the Promise Act, which is favored by the teacher unions and many other education advocates. State education aid in seven years would swell to $6.4 billion under Baker’s proposal and to $7.3 billion under the Promise Act, according to a recent analysis.

A consensus bill could be released soon.

Lawmakers are striving to address a stark reality: Many former industrial cities and towns are barely spending at the state’s minimum requirements on public education, while many well-to-do suburbs greatly exceed minimum amounts. The main culprit is the state’s 26-year-old funding formula, which has failed to keep pace with inflation, causing spending inequities to widen as communities with the financial wherewithal have made up the difference and then some. The Pioneer report reiterated that point, noting that Cambridge — a national hub for the bio-tech industry — spent $25,929 per student in local funds in 2018, while places like Lawrence, New Bedford, Brockton, and Springfield, each provided less than $3,000 per pupil in local dollars.

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Even after factoring in state aid, those communities, where state dollars covered most of their educational expenses, still spent about half as much per student as Cambridge did.

The report ultimately concluded that Baker’s proposal would offer enough relief to these communities, while the Promise Act and other school funding bills “are more than [what] is necessary to effectively update the formula.”

Jamie Gass, a coauthor of the report and director of Pioneer’s Center for School Reform, said “the conversation around money in exchange for accountability is not as robust as it should be.”

Tom Birmingham, who was Senate president when the 1993 Education Reform Act passed, noted while that law pumped billions of dollars into local schools, it also created state academic standards in nearly all subjects and a standardized testing system to judge school performance.

“The big bargain [in ’93] was money plus reforms, and that is the template we would liked used today,” said Birmingham who is now a senior education fellow at Pioneer. “If we miss the opportunity to attach reforms to increased spending, then we will squander a major opportunity to improve our public schools.”

Many groups supporting the Promise Act, which does not create additional mandates, argue the state is already asking too much of districts and the money under debate is owed to districts to make up for inflation. The Massachusetts Teachers Association blasted the report Tuesday.

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“Clearly the report’s authors have not been listening to educators and administrators, who say they are already drowning in destructive mandates and state-imposed red tape,” Merrie Najimy, the teachers association president, said in a statement. “The recommendations in this proposal go well beyond being ineffective. They constitute an assault on democracy and the tradition of local control while failing to advocate for the funding needed to give our most impoverished students and students of color a chance to thrive in our public schools.”

She also took issue with the report injecting the state’s unfunded pension liability into the school funding debate, arguing they are two separate issues. “Teachers and administrators fund a large majority of the costs of their own pensions,” she said. “They and their schools must not be penalized for the state’s past failure to live up to its funding obligations.”

The report did not advocate for any cuts to the pension system, the authors stressed.

“This is about making sure the state is giving enough money to maintain the teacher pension systems,” said Gregory Sullivan, a former state inspector general who also coauthored the report, in an interview. “The state has been pushing big payments out into the future in a way that is not realistic.”

The report included several recommendations to boost school performance, such as granting the state the ability to appoint the majority of school committee members in districts that receive most of their school funding from the state, putting more districts into state receivership, creating an independent agency to audit school district performance, increasing facility aid for charter schools, and fully fund and expand programs like regional vocational schools and METCO, a voluntary school-integration program.

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The Baker administration said in a statement it looks forward to working with the Legislature on a school-funding bill.

“Fortunately there is consensus on Beacon Hill for doing more to support education in Massachusetts’ highest need communities, but how exactly those resources are invested is just as important to ensure school districts are closing achievement gaps for Massachusetts students,” said James Peyser, the state’s education secretary who at one time led Pioneer.


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