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Negotiations Collapse On Education Funding Bill As Legislative Session Ends

This year's foundation budget bill was the most ambitious attempt to overhaul funding for Massachusetts' public schools in 25 years, and it sank late Tuesday night on Beacon Hill.

In its wake left bitter feelings for public education advocates, including its principal sponsor, and a lot of unanswered questions.

Shortly before the midnight end of the legislative session, state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz of Jamaica Plain revealed that no deal had been reached on the so-called "foundation budget" bill.

Chang-Diaz, Beacon Hill's top advocate for increased school funding, bitterly accused House leadership of using "rationalizations and double standards" to prevent any prospective deal — even, finally, of rejecting one of its own proposals to kill the bill.

In a statement, House Speaker Robert DeLeo said he was "proud" of the Legislature's accomplishments. “The Massachusetts House passed vital measures this legislative session, including those relating to paid family and medical leave, criminal justice reform, minimum wage, energy and environmental policy, and gun safety, among other items."

For the past week, Chang-Diaz, her education committee co-chair Rep. Alice Peisch of Wellesley, and four other members of a conference committee worked behind closed doors to reconcile the two chambers' different approaches to a school-funding gap.

That gap was first measured in 2015, by the bipartisan Foundation Budget Review Commission (FBRC) — co-chaired by Chang-Diaz and Peisch. The commission found that the state funding formula, mostly unrevised since 1993, was underestimating four particular costs facing the state's public schools in the 21st century: health benefits for teachers and staff, special education, and the education of both low-income students and English learners (ELL).

Taken together, those four undercounts could represent $1 or $2 billion in missing funding, according to one projection.

In districts like Brockton — with relatively little local tax revenue and high concentrations of needy and immigrant students — it felt like "hanging by a thread," in the words of Brockton Superintendent Kathleen Smith, who laid off dozens of teachers last year.

The Senate Proposal

This past spring, Chang-Diaz and others tried to build bipartisan political momentum on a bill that would tackle all four of those costs at once. That bill established an annual, public process toward adequately funding those priorities.

As she began her address introducing the legislation on May 10, Chang-Diaz listed cuts that districts statewide have made in recent years:

The Berklee public schools: the director of K-8 curriculum, health education programs, a middle school guidance counselor... The Gill-Montague Regional School District: trauma counselors and behavior specialists... Boston Public Schools: pencils, crayons, clean carpeting, healthy food options, books and calculators...

And Chang-Diaz invoked a considerable precedent for funding public education in this state.

Massachusetts' state Constitution, as penned mostly by John Adams and ratified in 1780, calls for “legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish… the university at Cambridge, public schools and grammar schools in the towns.”

Chang-Diaz asked her colleagues whether she felt the state is presently "cherishing public education." The state Senate voted unanimously in favor of her bill shortly thereafter.

The Senate bill would have prompted a considerable uptick in spending on schools, both from state coffers and in districts.

A study published July 18 by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center — a left-leaning think tank — projected that, if the FBRC recommendations were fully implemented over five years, it would drive nearly $900 million in new state aid to districts across Massachusetts.

Because state aid is dependent on the size of a municipality's tax base, the vast majority of those aid dollars would have gone to the least affluent 20 percent of districts. But nearly all districts would have seen some additional support under the reform.

(Max Larkin/WBUR)
(Max Larkin/WBUR)

The breadth of the support might explain why the bill had such strong bipartisan support. That said, some remained skeptical.

The House Responds

Going into the conference committee, there were signs of divergence between the House and Senate approaches.

Two months after the Senate bill's passage, the House of Representatives produced their own foundation-budget bill — with a tighter focus and a more limited payout.

That legislation, authored by Peisch, established a five-year timeline to implement the FBRC's health care and special education recommendations. But it put off the proposed changes to low-income and ELL funding, pending further review by "an independent research consultant." That bill, too, passed unanimously.

In an interview at the time, House Ways and Means Committee chair Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez said that the 2015 FBRC report left room for further study on those latter counts.

Chang-Diaz lashed out at the House legislation shortly after its passage in mid-July. She argued that the FBRC report had been clear enough to go forward on all four counts, and that further study was unnecessary.

The Eleventh Hour

Given the secrecy of conference committee meetings, it was reasonable to assume that the two chambers had dug into their corners and refused to yield on a compromise.

Chang-Diaz denied that this was the case, praising the House members of the conference and saying: "We offered multiple versions of major concessions — on structure, on content, on money. ... In the end, House leadership rejected all our offers [and] moved the goal posts" during the negotiations.

Chang-Diaz said the rules surrounding closed-door conference committees don't allow her to go into detail, but she called it a "dark day" for Massachusetts.

Peisch couldn't be reached for an interview.

But she and the other House conferees said in a statement that the problem of fine-tuning the foundation budget was simply too complicated to be addressed by either pending bill.

"Negotiations were complicated by new information obtained from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the exceptionally complex nature of recalculating various increments to the formula as we traded proposals," the statement said.

The conferees added that the state's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education warned that there was room for "hundreds of millions of dollars" of variance between potential foundation budgets, and that they will do "careful analysis" to target funds toward needy students in next year's budget.

Meanwhile, Brockton and Worcester have been considering suing the state over funding inequities.

Earlier:

Max Larkin Twitter Reporter
Max Larkin is a multimedia reporter for Edify, WBUR's education vertical.

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