Baker Administration's Analysis Of Education Funding Overhaul Roils Lawmakers

A day before the Senate was scheduled to open its debate on a $1.5 billion education funding reform bill, the careful rollout by Democratic leaders began to unravel Wednesday after the Baker administration shared its town-by-town analysis of the bill's impacts on school funding.

The breakdown provided to members of the press and lawmakers who had requested the information landed like a bombshell, sparking accusations that Gov. Charlie Baker's office was being misleading at best, and at worst trying to undermine the bill.

The fact remained, however, that with less than a day until senators were scheduled to debate and vote on the most comprehensive overhaul of public school funding since 1993, some still had not been told how the bill would impact the communities they represent.

The document provided by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education projected that the Student Opportunity Act would carry a price tag of $427 million in fiscal 2021, the first year of a seven-year implementation.

This year, the Legislature and Baker increased school funding increased by $268 million in the fiscal 2020 budget.

The analysis also projected an increase in Chapter 70 aid of $2.1 billion over this year's figures by the seventh year of the plan, and broke down how much districts would be required to contribute to their public schools and how much aid they could expect to receive in year one and year seven of the plan.

The data, which was initially prepared by DESE for the Joint Committee on Education, was being closely shielded from the public and carefully explained to senators ahead of their debate by leaders who were concerned that the information was incomplete and could give the wrong impression if not properly put into context.

Instead of releasing a full set of numbers to the public, Sen. Jason Lewis, the co-chair of the Education Committee, made a standing offer to senators the day the bill was released two weeks ago to walk them through the impact the bill would have in their individual Senate districts.

Lewis, according to Senate officials, was using the DESE numbers, but preferred to take the time to explain to individual senators all the caveats and variables that could impact the amount a district might receive, including different inflation scenarios and enrollment changes.

Those meetings were still taking place late Wednesday afternoon, even as senators were preparing to debate and vote on the bill, and then explain its impacts to their constituents.

"It is unfortunate that the Baker Administration has released inaccurate and misleading projections regarding the impact of the Student Opportunity Act on individual school districts."

Sen. Jason Lewis, in a statement

"It is unfortunate that the Baker Administration has released inaccurate and misleading projections regarding the impact of the Student Opportunity Act on individual school districts," Lewis said in a statement to the News Service.

"Projections of Chapter 70 aid for each municipality for next fiscal year and future years are highly uncertain, based upon numerous factors including the rate of inflation, student enrollment changes, local economic conditions and other variables. I would urge municipal and school officials not to use these numbers in their budget planning," he said.

DESE had already warned recipients of the data that the funding projections were based on the parameters of the bill, but also "required the use of some assumptions, such as future enrollments and inflation."

The department also cautioned that the numbers should not be used for fiscal 2021 budget planning purposes.

Senate President Karen Spilka reiterated that message to senators, emailing all members and staff to make clear that she was not pleased with the administration's decision to share the DESE analysis.

Spilka said the document's projections had created "needless confusion" and "paint a misleading picture of the contribution communities are currently making, and what they will be required to contribute in the future."

For example, the DESE analysis may have shown that a community's required local contribution would spike under the bill, but the document did not show that the same community already spends well above that threshold.

The DESE analysis, according to a Senate official, also relied on a 15-year inflation model and a zero-growth enrollment factor that may be helpful projecting statewide costs in 2027, but are less accurate for fiscal 2021 and for individual communities.

"The Administration is glad to hear that the Legislature possesses additional data regarding the impact on school districts across the Commonwealth and looks forward to that information becoming available," said Tim Buckley, senior adviser to the governor, in response to the pushback.

Buckley said that prior to votes being cast members of the media and "multiple" legislators from both chambers had "requested a public record analyzing the impact this legislation would have on their communities."

"The Administration satisfied those requests with the best possible analysis of this legislation making clear that the analysis is a projection based on the best available data," he said.

While it's unclear how many legislators went to the administration seeking information, the Senate Republican caucus clearly felt in the dark when it wrote a letter dated Wednesday to Lewis, Senate Ways and Means Chairman Michael Rodrigues and House Education Committee Chairwoman Alice Peisch.

The six Republicans requested "any information relative to the impacts of this bill."

"More specifically we are asking that you provide us with any district-level projections that you have developed for the 7 year phase-in period covered by the bill," they wrote.

And they weren't the only ones waiting for information. Earlier in the day, Sen. Nick Collins of South Boston told the News Service he was still waiting for his meeting with Lewis.

"My hope is today or tomorrow," said Collins, though he felt comfortable based on an analysis the city had done on its own that Boston was "going to be happy with the increase."

Sen. Barry Finegold, an Andover Democrat, said he had met one-on-one with Lewis, but said he couldn't share what his communities could expect from the bill.

"It's all hypothetical until we do the budget," said Finegold, who represents both wealthy towns like Andover and cities like Lawrence.

While the focus this week has been on the Senate, Peisch also wrote an email to all House members and staff to tell them that she would be working with House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz to "provide members with data that includes more accurate information and a clearer picture of the impact of this legislation."

The House has not yet set a date for its debate on the bill, but Peisch raised similar concerns to those expressed by her co-author Lewis.

"The value of these numbers without any context is highly questionable and the data, without baseline inflation amounts, is misleading," Peisch wrote in her afternoon email. "It is also interesting that the Administration has not publicly taken a position on the Student Opportunity Act but is prepared to release incomplete data on the possible financial impact of the bill."

Peisch declined to comment further on the controversy, but House Speaker Robert DeLeo said he was "surprised" by the administration's decision to share what he described as an "incomplete set of data."

"Without the inclusion of contextualizing economic assumptions and accurate enrollment information, this data is questionable, misleading, and generally unhelpful to a productive discourse about how best to support the students of the Commonwealth," DeLeo said.

The Massachusetts Association of School Committees, on Twitter, also took the side of the Legislature, indicating that the group feared Baker was trying to "undermine the process by which the Student Opportunity Act is moving toward enactment by the General Court."

"We do not want the premature distribution of preliminary projections of potentially incorrect local aid figures to undermine the legislative process," the group wrote.

Debate in the Senate is expected to begin at 11 a.m. on Thursday, and 69 amendments have been filed.



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