Craig F. Walker / Globe Staff / File 2018
School districts in Massachusetts are underfunded in four areas, a state commission found in 2015. The state’s formula fails to properly account for the cost of health care; of educating children with special education needs; teaching students for whom English is not their first language; and serving the needs of students from low-income families. The commission put forward specific recommendations for closing the gap in two of those four areas.
Now, both the House and Senate have passed legislation responding to the commission’s findings, both aimed at boosting state aid to districts. Neither gets it quite right.
Broadly speaking, the Legislature ought to be filling all four of the “buckets” — which the House bill fails to do. And it should be ensuring that the money is allocated based on careful analysis of need and that it will be spent wisely by school districts — which the Senate bill fails to do. Neither of them, meanwhile, grapples with where the $1 billion to $2 billion it will cost should come from.
Start with the House. The House bill funds special education and health insurance costs starting in 2020, because those are the two areas in which the 2015 commission issued specific recommendations, and calls for a study to calculate exactly how much additional funding districts need for English-language learners and low-income students. In the House’s approach, once the study is completed the other two buckets can then be funded, with accountability measures so the state can monitor whether districts are spending the extra money in effective ways. To the House, their approach is just common sense: Addressing the health care and special education needs the state already has a handle on, while analyzing how to meet the rest.
Critics of the House approach, though, fear that the “study” will turn out to be a euphemism for nothing. Districts across the state contend with special education and health care costs, making spending in those areas more politically popular. But it’s urban districts, in places like Boston, Lawrence, Springfield, and Holyoke, that often educate students from poor families or who don’t speak English. Will there be any political appetite to meet their needs once the more popular buckets are filled?
The Senate bill, in contrast, funds all four of the buckets, including those of particular relevance to poor urban areas. But it just writes checks to districts. The bill lacks language found in the House that would direct the state’s education commissioner to identify and recommend interventions for ELL and low-income students that work and, if he chose, to tie incentives for reform to the new funding.
The Senate’s approach could lead to misallocation of resources. For instance, it’s unlikely that the cost of educating a 15-year-old from Central America with limited literacy in his or her native language is the same as educating a 5-year-old native Spanish speaker. While the 2015 foundation budget review commission recommends a flat increment added to the rate per pupil, a study like the one proposed in the House would ensure that such differences are reflected in funding.
A conference committee is now trying to reconcile the differences in the bills, and advocates have sought to create a sense of urgency, warning that underfunded districts could sue. But the threat of lawsuits shouldn’t rush the state into multibillion-dollar decisions. The Senate is right: All four deficiences identified by the 2015 commission need to be addressed in tandem. And the House is right: The state needs a better grip on how to spend money on low-income students and English-language learners. A compromise needs to find a way to ensure both.
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