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House passes landmark education funding bill, but a clash with Senate is likely

The Massachusetts House of Representatives on Wednesday took up sweeping legislation to overhaul the state’s education funding system.
The Massachusetts House of Representatives on Wednesday took up sweeping legislation to overhaul the state’s education funding system.Craig F. Walker/File/Globe Staff

The Massachusetts House of Representatives unanimously passed sweeping legislation Wednesday to overhaul the state’s antiquated education funding system, setting up a clash with the Senate about how much power state officials should be given over the $1.4 billion in proposed additional state aid.

Amid opposition from House leadership, sponsors withdrew two amendments that would have reduced state influence over district plans for the new state aid. The amendments were backed by some of the House’s more progressive members and by teachers unions.

Rejecting those amendments puts the House at odds with the Senate over the high-stakes legislation, which is designed to bridge the divide in educational opportunities between poor and affluent systems. The Senate’s version of the bill, passed several weeks ago, included changes that would trim the power state education officials could exercise over local spending plans.

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Critics — Governor Charlie Baker among them — said the Senate-passed changes weakened measures designed to provide accountability of how districts use the extra funds, which would be doled out over the next seven years.

“We should, in fact, assume that each district has leadership that is just and addresses opportunity and leadership gaps. But as good stewards of educational equity and justice, we should verify,” said Representative Andy Vargas, a Democrat from Haverhill, opposing one of the two amendments to weaken state influence.

Representative James K. Hawkins, the sponsor of one of the amendments, argued on the House floor that local districts need to have “independence to do whatever is right” for their students, before withdrawing the proposal.

The Senate language had the backing of the state’s powerful teachers unions. They charged the original provision gave the state too strong a hand in shaping districts’ plans. They vowed to keep fighting for changes even as they heaped praise on the overall bill.

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“When the bill goes to a conference committee, we will keep the pressure on in support of the Senate’s language,” said Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, referring to the committee of senators and representatives that irons out differences between each chamber’s version of a bill.

“If we’re asking for input from our community to make these, why should anybody say later you shouldn’t do that plan?” Beth Kontos, president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, said in a phone interview. “If that’s what the community says that they want, then they should do it.” But Kontos stressed that the bill, as a whole, is a much needed step forward, even if the Senate provisions don’t survive.

“It still comes down to a historic bill with historic spending, something that is long overdue,” she said. “I take this as a victory.”

In all, lawmakers ultimately withdrew 60 of the 70 amendments they had filed, approved five, and held just one roll-call vote on an amendment over several hours of debate.

A so-called technical amendment that quickly passed in the waning moments of the session did offer one measure of victory for teachers unions and advocates pushing to alter the accountability language. The change added flexibility to the kinds of programs districts could use to address achievement gaps after the original language required them to use at least seven different types.

House leaders were clear from the start that they opposed the changes the Senate made to state oversight of the new money.

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“It’s very important that we have some sense of accountability,” Representative Alice H. Peisch, House chairwoman of the education committee, said shortly before debate began.

Representatives from across the state praised the legislation, especially those who said their districts had been grappling with persistent funding woes and performance gaps exacerbated by the outdated funding formula.

“The money we are investing will make a big difference in our city of Worcester,” said Representative Mary Keefe, a Democrat who represents the city, one of several municipalities that had threatened to sue if the Legislature did not address problems with the formula.

“It’s 10 times the bill it was last year,” said Representative Aaron Vega of Holyoke, recalling how many years Beacon Hill had worked on revamping the formula, including a bill that collapsed at the very end of last session.

Still, the floor debate revealed that some members feel their school districts were being shortchanged by the legislation, which by design targets much of the new funding to districts that serve large concentrations of students living in poverty or those with language barriers.

Representative Colleen M. Garry, Democrat of Dracut, said during the floor debate that she was concerned the bill would require municipalities to spend more on schools without providing much additional state money for schools in her district.

“The vast amount of this money is going to cities and our smaller communities are not getting our fair share,” said Garry, who ultimately voted for the legislation.

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Garry also gave a nod to the controversy that erupted over the analysis Baker’s office released on the eve of the Senate vote, estimating the bill’s fiscal impact on school districts, using those numbers to illustrate how much less generous the bill was to her district than Lowell, a so-called gateway city and among the biggest beneficiaries of the proposed formula changes.

House and Senate leaders alike disputed the Baker administration numbers, saying they lacked context and threatened to confuse the public.

Peisch’s office provided different numbers — offered as “a broad guide to how this bill may affect districts” — to House members, but she did not make those figures public.

While teachers unions and other progressive groups were disappointed by the failure to win changes in the accountability language on Wednesday, other groups praised the House for standing firm.

Edward Lambert, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, which has backed stricter state oversight, said he’s optimistic the House language can survive the conference committee process, largely because senators on the Joint Committee on Education had already backed the original language when it was first unveiled.

The House also included modified language from the Senate version that sets a floor for what districts get in direct state aid while the new formula is rolled out over seven years. The measure, lawmakers say, is intended to guarantee that no district receives less money under the rejiggered school funding formula, than it would under the current version.

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Peisch estimated this “transitional hold harmless aid” provision would apply to approximately one dozen to two dozen school districts out of the more than 400 in the state.

It would sunset at the end of the bill’s seven-year implementation period.

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 that reimburses districts for some tuition and transportation costs for students with disabilities who attend private programs.

Those additions, lawmakers say, push the total to $1.5 billion.

The legislation does not include new taxes or fees, but legislative leaders have said the state’s humming economy can provide the tax revenue to cover the increases in state aid.


Victoria McGrane can be reached at victoria.mcgrane@globe.com. Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com.