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Lawmakers reach deal on landmark school funding bill, moving it toward law

House Speaker Robert DeLeo and House Education Chairwoman Alice Peisch emerged from a closed-door caucus at the State House on the education funding bill in October. State lawmakers said Tuesday they’ve reached a deal on the bill.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo and House Education Chairwoman Alice Peisch emerged from a closed-door caucus at the State House on the education funding bill in October. State lawmakers said Tuesday they’ve reached a deal on the bill.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

State lawmakers are preparing to move a landmark education bill to Governor Charlie Baker’s desk Wednesday that, with his signature, would pump an additional $1.4 billion of direct local aid into schools over seven years, and give state officials the power to help shape districts’ plans for using the extra cash.

The bill — which legislative leaders unveiled Tuesday after weeks of closed-door negotiations — is the culmination of years of debate over how to overhaul the state’s antiquated school funding formula more than 25 years after policy makers first crafted it.

It’s designed to bridge the divide in educational opportunities between poor and affluent school systems, largely by directing more money to districts that serve greater concentrations of students living in poverty or those with language barriers.

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The intention, lawmakers say, is to address what could be staggering spending gaps from district to district under the current formula. For example, in Chelsea, where 82 percent of students live in poverty or have a language barrier or disability, the district spent $13,857 per student in 2017, while in Weston — where only a quarter of the students have those learning challenges — the wealthy suburb spent almost $10,000 more per student, the Globe has reported.

“This will make a real difference to our students for years to come,” House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo and Senate President Karen E. Spilka said in a rare joint statement.

The House and Senate have both scheduled Wednesday votes ahead of their end-of-year recess. The bill is expected to easily clear both branches after receiving a largely warm reception Tuesday from unions and business-backed advocates.

While Senate and House leaders together released a version of the bill in September, the debate was roiled in recent months by a disputed analysis the Baker administration released of the legislation’s impact on towns and cities, as well as a disagreement between the chambers over how much power the state should have in overseeing local districts.

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A central issue in the negotiations between a six-member conference committee was a provision requiring 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 hundreds of millions more each year into local schools.

The compromise version unveiled Tuesday includes similar language to what had been stripped out amid the Senate debate and requires the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education to review each of the hundreds of plans districts would file.

It also mandates that local officials amend any plans that the state has “deemed not to conform” with the bill’s requirements.

The bill’s original language that demanded districts change plans that weren’t in “compliance” had chafed teachers unions, who argued it gave the state too much power in approving the locally created plans. The Senate later passed an amendment that nixed the provision, and instead said that the commissioner “may recommend” changes to the plans.

But Democratic House leaders — as well as Baker, a Republican — had opposed the change, arguing it weakened the bill’s intent. The language that will now go back before the chambers hews more closely to what the Legislature’s Committee on Education had originally proposed.

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“We wanted to be clear that there was some mechanism to ensure that this funding is actually going to benefit the students that it is designed to help,” said Representative Alice H. Peisch, the House chairwoman of the Committee on Education. “The districts are the ones that produce the plans. The commissioner must review them and then if he finds that something is lacking . . . then the district is required to amend the plan.

“I think that’s the appropriate balance,” the Wellesley Democrat said.

Once the bill reaches his desk, Baker will have 10 days to review it, but lawmakers and advocates are hopeful it won’t find too much resistance from the governor, who had proposed his own bill in January. While he spoke out against the Senate’s amendment, Baker aides noted Tuesday that the administration didn’t air any specific objections when the education committee released its original version.

Even without the Senate changes, the bill drew mostly praise from union officials. Beth Kontos, president of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said she hopes Baker signs it “quickly without any changes.” And Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, praised the legislation’s overall intent, even if it features too much “top-down intrusions” from the state.

“The Legislature is living up to its constitutional obligation to make sure that the quality of a child’s school is not determined by race or class,” Najimy said.

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Edward Lambert, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, which has backed stricter state oversight, said the negotiated language strikes the right chord without being “overly intrusive.”

“I don’t think we could have envisioned a better outcome from the conference committee,” he said.

The legislation does not include new taxes or fees, but legislative leaders have argued that the state’s humming economy can provide the tax revenue to cover the extra infusion of state funds.

Also on the horizon is a potential constitutional amendment that would impose an additional surcharge on the state’s income tax for earnings above $1 million, which supporters say could generate $2 billion annually in revenue, including for education.

The proposal will need to pass the Legislature in successive sessions — it already has this year — before going to the ballot in 2022.

Efforts to reshape the school funding formula have endured a tortured history, including last year when talks crumbled in a late-session conference committee.

The backdrop is partly why legislators pushed to get the bill to Baker before the end of the year. They wanted to avoid another drawn-out negotiation and also allow schools enough time to adjust to its changes. The legislation, for example, mandates that districts submit their first three-year plan to the state by April 1, 2020.

But it also didn’t come without its symbolic hurdles. As staffers went to file the compromise with the Senate clerk Tuesday, a fire alarm rang through the building, forcing an evacuation.

“We were very aware of the disappointing ending last session,” said Senator Jason M. Lewis, the Senate chair of the education committee and a Winchester Democrat. “I think everyone recognizes that there’s a great need out there to address the lack of adequate and equitable resources in our public schools. . . . We have felt a great sense of urgency.”

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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. Lawmakers have said 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.


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com.