Massachusetts House leaders on Monday unveiled reworked legislation to overhaul the state’s education funding system, including stripping out Senate-backed language critics say weakened the state’s oversight of how school districts spend the additional $1.4 billion in direct aid promised under the bill.
The change comes as the House prepares to take up the legislation on Wednesday, roughly three weeks after the Senate unanimously passed a version of it.
The floor deliberations this week will be a big test of whether the unity within the state Legislature for the bill, hammered out by the House and Senate education committee chairs, can hold as the legislation moves through both chambers.
Debate has swirled around changes adopted by the Senate that critics, including Governor Charlie Baker, argue weakened measures designed to provide accountability of how districts use the extra funds, which would be doled out over the next seven years. The changes, which were backed by the state’s powerful teachers unions, were intended to clarify the language, according to senators.
In a new version released by the House’s budget committee Monday, lawmakers removed the amendment passed by the Senate and reverted back to language negotiated by the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education when it released an original form of the bill in September. The House version also peeled out other, more modest Senate changes, while making what state Representative Aaron Michlewitz, the chairman of the House budget committee, called “small technical” tweaks.
State representatives have until Tuesday afternoon to file amendments, promising to open up further debate on the House floor. But in a chamber where House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo and his leadership team hold sway, the decision to not include the Senate changes may ultimately push the issue into a conference committee, where House and Senate members would hammer out differences between each chamber’s version.
DeLeo said Monday that he prefers the original legislation the committee produced, which was widely praised by legislative leaders, advocacy groups, and teachers.
“I thought it was a good compromise and a good piece of legislation,” the Winthrop Democrat said.
The union-backed amendment is a key reason the House did not take up the education bill more quickly after it passed the Senate on Oct. 3, House Majority Leader Ronald Mariano, a Quincy Democrat, said before the House bill was released. House leaders wanted to make sure they understood what effect the amendment would have on the enforcement piece of the bill.
“What we don’t want to have is a misunderstanding, a miscommunication that causes what we think is a carefully balanced bill to be thrown into the scrap pile” in conference, he said.
At issue is a provision in the bill that requires local officials to create publicly available three-year plans showing how they intend to close achievement gaps within their districts, including how state aid would be used. It was intended to provide a layer of transparency as the state pumps an additional $1.4 billion in direct aid into schools over the next seven years.
The bill’s original language — and which the House included in the version that emerged Monday — requires the state’s commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education to review each of the hundreds of plans districts would file, and it mandated that local officials amend any “deemed not in compliance.”
The union-backed amendment that the Senate passed, however, nixed the “compliance” language that supporters say gave the commissioner approval power, and instead states the commissioner “may recommend” changes to the plans. Under the amendment, however, the commissioner would have the power to ensure that districts with underperforming or chronically underperforming schools produce plans that are “consistent” with broader state turnaround initiatives.
The Senate also added language that explicitly ensured state officials could not withhold any direct local aid from districts. The House, however, did not include that in its latest version.
“They had a different approach,” Michlewitz said of the Senate changes. “We wanted to start where the bill originally started from — and move from there.”
Senate President Karen E. Spilka on Monday defended the amended language, saying senators spoke with officials at the Department of Secondary and Elementary Education before drafting it to make it “more consistent with DESE’s practice and capacity.”
“It changed it. But I don’t think it weakened it,” she said of the amendment.
As bill moves toward the House floor, it also remains unclear if the general public will have updated estimates on what the bill means for their local school districts.
Legislative leaders in both chambers criticized Baker’s office for releasing district-by-district estimates of what the bill would mean for local communities, calling the numbers flawed, incomplete, and misleading.
But so far no one from the state Legislature has provided alternative estimates.
Representative Alice H. Peisch, House chair of the education committee, sent an e-mail to colleagues in the wake of Baker’s release promising “to provide members with data that includes more accurate information and a clearer picture of the impact of this legislation.”
Reached by e-mail Friday, Peisch said the goal was to have that data for members “as soon as possible,” but she did not respond when asked if the data would be shared with the public. Her office did not respond to further questions Monday about the analysis.
Lawmakers said their goal in overhauling the state’s school funding formula was 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.
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.