At long last, the Legislature’s joint Education Committee has unveiled a much-awaited proposal to update the school funding formula in Massachusetts.
No compromise is ever perfect, but this sweeping bill, dubbed the Student Opportunity Act, is a good start — one that has attracted tentative support from a broad range of stakeholders. It gets municipalities, education reform advocates, teachers unions, and other education stakeholders as close as they’re going to get to the same page. And after last year’s effort ended in acrimony and finger-pointing, that’s a significant accomplishment.
Let’s start with the positive aspects of the legislation. The most important part of the bill is new money. It promises the largest boost to state investment in the Commonwealth’s K-12 education system in more than 20 years — roughly $1.5 billion in local aid over the next seven years.
The proposal implements pretty much all the recommendations of a landmark report issued by a 2015 state commission that sounded the alarm on the antiquated school aid formula shortchanging local districts.
The compromise proposal markedly increases funding for districts that serve a high share of low-income students while also improving the metric used to estimate who qualifies as a low-income student. It also adjusts the formula to include more dollars for special-education students, English-language learners, and to more accurately reflect health insurance costs.
It also boosts state investment in other areas, such as school buildings, transportation, and the guidance and psychological services category, and sets up a data advisory commission to fine-tune collection of data at the state, district, and school levels.
Given the amount of new spending, one area of concern is how it will be financed.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo said no new taxes would be needed to finance the bill, but he also didn’t say where the money would come from. It was troubling that Senate President Karen Spilka implied the bill is contingent on continued economic growth. She said in a WGBH radio interview that the proposal is affordable “if our economy keeps growing the way it’s growing.”
For his part, Governor Baker, who had proposed less extensive new spending, has yet to weigh in.
One big question here is, what happens if the economy, and thus state revenues, slows down, just as the state undertakes this substantial new commitment? Policy makers should go into this realizing they may need to raise additional revenues to provide this new state aid — and a mechanism for doing so. Additionally, the proposal does not include several of the accountability approaches the governor pushed for, such as provisions to allow innovation zones and give the state education commissioner more power — short of a takeover — to oversee struggling schools.
This legislation takes an approach to accountability that relies on districts setting and meeting goals. For instance, the bill would require districts to submit three-year public plans to the state detailing their efforts at closing achievement gaps and then report on their progress. There are no specific consequences if the districts fail to meet those goals.
For that reason, it’s important that the commissioner’s ability to review district plans not be watered down in any way.
The bill would also establish an education trust fund with up to $10 million annually for innovation grants — similar to what Baker had proposed, but with less money. It’s unfortunate that in an otherwise generous spending plan, the Legislature chose to be so miserly with the innovation grants. That fund should be at least doubled.
It was also disappointing that lawmakers left out the innovation-partnership-zone proposal, a measure that would allow local stakeholders — including parents and school committees — to establish a zone around a group of failing schools. The good news is that the innovation zone proposal exists as a stand-alone bill. Lawmakers should take action on it and pass it, too.
The authors of the compromise, state Representative Alice Peisch and state Senator Jason Lewis, say that in five years their legislation will lead to demonstrable narrowing of the achievement gap, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. So mark your calendars: In five years, Peisch and Lewis will answer for whether their approach — more money with only minimal new accountability — works.
The Student Opportunity Act now moves first to the Senate and then the House. Lastly, it will go to Baker for his consideration. Amendments are possible, and there are already demands to remove even the limited-accountability language.
No compromise pleases everyone. But as long as the funding promises contained in the Student Opportunity Act are reliable, and as long as the Legislature withstands pressure to water down its accountability sections, this is a bill that should help Massachusetts address many of its biggest educational challenges and should earn the governor’s support.