House and Senate leaders Thursday unveiled long-awaited legislation to overhaul the state’s antiquated school-funding formula that they say would pump an additional $1.4 billion in local aid to schools over the next seven years.
The proposal — jointly announced by House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, Senate President Karen E. Spilka, and other legislative leaders — aims to bridge the divide in educational opportunities between poor and affluent systems by directing more money to districts that serve greater concentrations of students living in poverty or those with language barriers.
“While we are all proud that Massachusetts is top-rated nationally in education, we want to extend that success to all students,” said DeLeo, a Winthrop Democrat.
Legislative leaders stressed the proposal would boost money for all districts, without raising taxes.
Beyond revamping the formula, the bill would create a fund with up to $10 million annually for grants toward school-improvement efforts, and increase spending on school construction projects. It would also add $90 million more to a separate pot of money that reimburses districts for some tuition and transportation costs for students with profound disabilities who attend private programs. Those additions, lawmakers say, push the total package to $1.5 billion.
“Every single public school district across the state will benefit from this bill,” said Spilka, an Ashland Democrat.
Legislative leaders, however, did not provide a breakdown of potential aid amounts to individual districts under the legislation. Some lawmakers warned that it could be misleading to forecast how much a specific city or town would get, particularly seven years into the future.
In spite of the price tag, DeLeo said lawmakers are not tying any new taxes to the proposal, saying they “plan to stay within the present confines of our budget.”
Legislative leaders said the bill builds upon recent steps to boost school funding. For instance, this year’s state budget is providing an additional $270 million in local aid to districts, pushing the overall amount to $5.2 billion. Lawmakers have repeatedly described that increase as a down payment toward future investments that would be made when the formula is overhauled.
The bill, years in the making, appears to be on a fast legislative track, at least initially. The Senate is poised to vote as soon as the first week of October. A House vote could take place in a matter of weeks. Any changes to the bill made by each chamber, however, would need to be ironed out in a conference committee, an often time-consuming process.
Lizzy Guyton, a spokeswoman for Governor Charlie Baker, said he would review the bill, including to “evaluate the fiscal impact.”
The proposal immediately generated enthusiasm among educators, parents, and other school advocates who have been pushing to change the formula.
Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said an initial review of the new bill indicates it “has real potential of changing school for kids who have not had an equitable education.”
“$1.5 billion over seven years will dramatically change the conditions of our students’ education,” she said. “It will allow reductions in class sizes, increase social workers and guidance counselors, restore libraries, and provide more courses for students.”
But she expressed disappointment that the bill doesn’t bolster reimbursements to districts that lose state aid when money follows students who attend independently run charter schools. Instead, legislators are merely recommitting themselves to fully funding the reimbursement levels specified under state law — after years of budget cutting that has shortchanged districts. For instance, when a new charter school opens, districts are supposed to have 100 percent of their tuition reimbursed the first year for each student who attends.
Efforts to reshape the school funding formula have endured a tortured history in the approximately 25 years since it was originally crafted. Hopes for a legislative fix last year were dashed after talks stalled in a conference committee, and then in June, parents and nonprofits filed a lawsuit accusing the state of failing to fulfill its constitutional duty of providing disadvantaged students with the same quality of education as their affluent peers.
Meanwhile, Baker, a Republican, and progressive lawmakers each released their own version of a school funding bill earlier this year, albeit with vastly different approaches to meeting the recommendations of a state legislative commission that found several years ago the formula was grossly underestimating the cost of a public education.
The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education — led by Senator Jason M. Lewis, a Winchester Democrat, and Representative Alice H. Peisch, a Wellesley Democrat — was tasked with crafting a bill that would be ambitious and also had a good chance of becoming law. Thursday’s legislation was the result.
The bill forgoes some measures Baker had proposed — and some advocates derided — such as a plan to give the state’s commissioner of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education the ability to withhold some state aid from school districts if they aren’t making necessary changes to improve student performance.
Instead, lawmakers included a provision requiring officials to create publicly available, three-year plans to show how they intend to close opportunity gaps within their districts, including specific details on how they would use state aid to execute defined programs and strategies. Those plans would then be reviewed by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which could recommend changes.
However, the bill did appear to include an aspect that was similar to Baker’s plan, by calling for the creation of a new school improvement fund, which would provide an estimated $10 million annually to districts to pursue new innovative practices.
Beth Kontos, president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, expressed concerns that giving state education officials the ability to tell local districts how to spend state aid would result in a loss of local control.
“To me, it’s a power grab whether intentional or not,” she said, while also questioning whether the state education department had enough staffing to review plans from more than 400 districts.
However, Keri Rodrigues, the founder of the advocacy group Massachusetts Parents United, said requiring school districts to file the plans ensures the system goes beyond signing a “blank check”
“The more light we have on this, the better shot we have at fixing this,” she said.
The bill received a vote of confidence from the Senate’s former education chair, Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, who had pushed a separate version of an overhaul.
Thursday’s proposal differs in several areas from that bill, known as the Promise Act, including how it approaches charter school reimbursement. But Chang-Díaz, a progressive voice on education, offered praise for the compromise.
“The bones of this bill are excellent,” said the Jamaica Plain Democrat, adding that the bill accomplishes several goals, including an attempt to more accurately count low-income students. “This bill really hits all of them. It’s not a difficult call for me.”
A City of Boston official said it would benefit under the legislation because it would change the methodology of counting low-income students, resulting in more per-student aid. Mayor Martin J. Walsh said in a statement that the new bill looked promising.
Paul Reville, a former state education secretary, said he was pleased the legislative leaders appear to be moving with urgency — and in unison — to address the spending inequities.
“It’s generous and progressive,” he said, adding he hopes the measure doesn’t stall.
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