Massachusetts lawmakers are very close to a landmark increase in funding for the state’s public schools.
On Monday morning, lawmakers reported a compromise bill out of conference committee that would pump billions of dollars into school districts over a seven-year phase-in. That reinvestment would affect all of the state's districts, but it would come most dramatically in diverse, low-income communities that have struggled in recent years to cover their own costs, like Brockton and Worcester.
The state’s Joint Committee on Education has spent months shaping some of the bill’s more complex provisions: the amount of extra funding targeted at low-income students, as well as on the balance between state and local control of districts’ plans.
Committee co-chair Alice Peisch, a representative from Wellesley, attributed the bill’s speedy turnaround in conference committee to all that work on the front end. “It made it much easier in conference — we were able to come to agreement relatively quickly,” Peisch said.
Peisch also said she believed the bill struck the right balance when it comes to accountability, “giving districts sufficient ability to make their own decisions, but having some kind of oversight” by the state’s commissioner of education.
The bill would require each district to submit a plan to the state's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education every three years explaining their "targets for addressing persistent disparities in achievement" between groups of students, including how they plan to spend state aid and why.
The bill also includes a number of smaller measures that hope to spur innovation and efficiency. Those include a provision for the secretary of education to gather data on high school graduates' outcomes after they enter college or the workforce, and a "Twenty-First Century Education Trust Fund," to be administered by the state's education commissioner and to fund information sharing between districts.
The anticipated new funding would derive from an update to the state’s decades-old formula to calculate the “foundation budget” — the formula used to determine the cost of adequate public education and the state’s responsibility to individual districts. Lawmakers drafting the bill assume existing revenue streams to the state will fund the overhaul.
State Sen. Jason Lewis, of Winchester, noted that the compromise bill fully implements all four of the major recommendations made by the 2015 commission — chaired by Peisch and her then-co-chair, state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz of Boston — that first called prominent attention to lagging state support for schools.
Michael Thomas, Brockton Public Schools interim superintendent, said that over the past eight years, his district has laid off more than 150 teachers and another 200 support staff, and cut programming and technology. Thomas praised legislators for getting so close to a resolution.
"It's a Christmas present for us come early," he said.
According to MassBudget projections from this summer, Brockton would stand to receive about $70 million more per year by 2026 under a bill like this one than it would have received otherwise.
Lewis, who has only served as a co-chair of the education committee since February, said reversing the sorts of cuts that Brockton has made is one of the bill's great goals. With its passage, Lewis said, “We will have what I believe is the strongest and most progressive funding formula in the nation, particularly in the way it addresses the needs of English learners and low-income students."
By 2026, even districts with few so-called "high-needs" students would receive considerably more state aid under the bill — on average 24% more than they'd expect without it. But the biggest winners — with projected increases of 35% or above — would be the state's most diverse, mid- to large-sized districts, among them Springfield, Malden, Quincy, Boston and Everett.
It is worth noting the bill does not include a dedicated revenue stream. In that way, it resembles the last major reform of public education: the "grand bargain" struck in 1993 that brought in the MCAS, charter schools and the budget formula now being revised.
The Legislature had the benefit of at least one false start in getting this done earlier than anticipated: A similar bill died at the last minute in July 2018, in the final moments of the last legislative session. But Peisch said Monday that that process — while frustrating — served to reveal areas where “we needed more information.”
That push was led by Chang-Diaz, who left her post as co-chair of the education committee, to be replaced by Lewis. Out in the rain during a Monday morning fire drill, Chang-Diaz said she was thrilled the committee has gone on to "do the right thing."
Chang-Diaz credited the "persistence" of educators, activists, parents and students for reviving the bill and pushing for its passage early in the current legislative session. And she expressed gratitude for the breadth of that coalition: unanimous support in both chambers, backed by groups from the nonprofit Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education to the big teachers' unions.
Peisch said she and other top stakeholders met with House Speaker Robert DeLeo in August 2018, shortly after the first bill's failure. At that meeting, Peisch said, “a commitment was made to get [this] bill out far in advance of the end of the session — so that we didn’t end up [with] the problem of the clock.”
Peisch told reporters that if Gov. Charlie Baker signs the bill this month, she hopes the first benefits will turn up in state classrooms by the start of the next academic year.
Though the bill passed in the House and Senate unanimously, Baker has not yet made a commitment to signing it as is. Early in the session, Baker submitted his own bill that allocated less for low-income students, and as a result was projected to cost the state only a third as much.
In a statement, Baker's press secretary Sarah Finlaw said the governor "supports strong accountability measures to ensure taxpayer dollars go toward helping children succeed in under-performing schools," and that he will "carefully review" the bill once it reaches his desk.
This article was originally published on November 19, 2019.
This segment aired on November 20, 2019.