Getting to yes on Mass. school funding
There’s a growing consensus that the state’s public schools need a funding boost — this year. And if differences as minor as those between rival proposals to do so can’t be bridged, it’d be a terrible outcome for students and a disturbing indication of Beacon Hill’s ability to reach compromises.
You might not know it from the rhetoric of some critics, but the House, Senate, and Governor Charlie Baker appear close to being on the same page. Baker and legislators all want a funding increase north of $1 billion, based on the findings of a 2015 state commission that studied funding shortfalls.
The sticking points lie in the details: exactly how much to spend, exactly how fast to phase it in, and exactly how to assure that new money brings results.
Those are important questions, but none of them should be dealbreakers. Legislative leaders, including Education Committee chairs, need to be committed to getting to yes this session. Last year ended with an impasse, and that’s not an outcome that House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka can allow to be repeated.
Predictably, the biggest division is over whether to attach strings to new state aid.
The notion offends teachers’ unions, some local officials, and state Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz. In their view, the state has been underfunding districts — “owes” them money, as the emerging talking point goes — and can’t put conditions on repaying a debt.
That opposition didn’t fly with the House last year, and it’s a nonstarter with Baker, whose proposal released Wednesday plows money into schools, but introduces some accountability measures designed to ensure that the money is spent on proven education strategies to close the achievement gap. For instance, it sets up a $50 million School Improvement Trust Fund aimed at supporting programming in low-performing schools.
Most controversially, it also gives the state more power over schools deemed underperforming. The state would be able to withhold administrative funding from districts that have failed to make improvements to those underperforming schools.
The idea that the state “owes” districts might make for an appealing political narrative, but it’s not a helpful way to approach this debate. Legislators took their best guess in 1993, when they passed a trailblazing education reform law, but the formulas they put in place underfunded some aspects, like the cost of educating English language learners. Lawmakers still don’t know precisely what the right amount is. Even Chang-Diaz doesn’t have a specific dollar figure in mind for what schools need. As in 1993, Beacon Hill will have to make a political decision on a spending level.
Baker’s proposal needn’t be the last word. But closing the achievement gap is an important aim of this new round of funding, and some type of accountability measures would be appropriate in return for at least $262 million in new state aid this year alone. The state doesn’t owe districts a particular dollar figure, but it does owe students a good education — and the policies to make sure that state money goes toward providing one.