Many education advocates are characterizing the state’s new budget as a big step toward overhauling school funding, but they are still eager for Beacon Hill to pass a separate and more comprehensive remake of the state’s 26-year-old funding formula.
There is some reason for optimism: The state budget calls for the largest increase in school funding in years, $268.4 million, bringing overall spending in the school funding program known as Chapter 70 to $5.18 billion. But advocates are looking for a permanent, long-term fix.
“Lawmakers were very thoughtful and considerate of our concerns. They responded to a lot of issues that we identified and needed to be addressed,” said Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.
The allotted increase for school funding is the same amount the Senate had set aside in its budget proposal earlier this year. The House and Governor Charlie Baker were slightly less generous in their earlier proposals, devoting $5.16 million and $5.11 million in overall Chapter 70 spending respectively.
Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, and Beth Kontos, president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, both called the school funding increase a big downpayment toward a permanent fix.
“We will continue to fight,” Najimy said. “Our students who have been historically underfunded have to gain what they deserve.”
A school funding bill is currently being drafted by the Joint Education Committee. Initially, advocates were hopeful a bill would materialize before formal sessions end for the summer on July 31, but as that date draws near, advocates are now assuming they will have to wait until fall.
The Joint Education Committee is relying strongly on two bills in coming up with their own proposal — one pitched by Baker and another by Boston Democratic Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz and many other legislators that enjoys wide support from teacher unions, superintendents, school committees, parents, and students.
That latter bill would cost about $1 billion more to fund than Baker’s when fully implemented in seven years. Supporters of the more expensive bill say that Baker’s proposal isn’t generous enough and also includes strings, such as giving the state education commissioner additional authority to intervene in underperforming schools.
The state budget offers some insight in what direction the Legislature may move with a long-term school funding bill.
Many advocates view the inclusion of the state Senate’s Chapter 70 recommendation as an indication that lawmakers may be receptive to making a big, long-term investment in public education, rather than just a modest boost.
The state budget also makes some changes to the way local school districts are reimbursed for a small portion of their charter-school tuition payments — an issue that has come up in the school funding debate. Local districts lose thousands of dollars in per-student aid to charter schools every time a student enrolls.
The problem has been particularly acute in Boston, where most state aid gets redirected to charter schools, forcing the city to pay for almost all of its school department’s expenses, which exceed $1 billion annually.
Under the state budget, several million dollars would be set aside specifically for school systems like Boston with a significant number of students enrolled in charter schools.
“We are encouraged by the Legislature’s attention to the critical issue of charter reimbursement, and we thank both branches for taking the time to address this and other education funding issues,” said Laura Oggeri, a spokeswoman for Mayor Walsh, in a statement, noting city finance officials are still reviewing all aspects of the budget. “We look forward to completing a full analysis of the impact this budget will have on the City of Boston’s education funding for the upcoming year and we will continue to advocate for an equitable long-term education finance solution.”
Other districts, which are eager to finalize their budgets for the upcoming school year and complete outstanding hiring, are also looking forward to receiving their final state aid amounts, said Scott, of the superintendent’s association.
He said he was also pleased the budget increases spending on other education programs, such as expanding computer science classes at a time when Massachusetts is lagging behind other states in that area and increasing reimbursements for students with extraordinary special needs.
While the state budget includes the highest increase in years for school funding, the amount school districts would have received if the most expensive school funding bill on Beacon Hill had been enacted for this year would have been even larger. That bill would have injected an additional $78 million on top of what’s in the budget, according to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, a Boston-based think tank that receives funding from philanthropic foundations, teacher unions, and other advocacy organizations.
“In one of the wealthiest states in the nation, it is particularly disappointing that so many students will again start school in September with many of their educational needs not being met,” the Fund Our Future campaign said in a statement. “This Legislature needs to build on today’s down payment by passing a comprehensive school finance overhaul that makes a long-term commitment to fully and equitably funded local public schools.”