Lawmakers unveil new education spending plan  

Christian M. Wade/Staff photoSenate President Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, left, talks to reporters Thursday about a $1.5 billion plan to overhaul the state's education funding system. She was joined by, from left, state Sen. Jason Lewis, D-Winchester, and Rep. Alice Peisch, D-Wellesley, co-chairs of the Education Committee that wrote the bill, and House Speaker Robert DeLeo, D-Winthrop.

BOSTON — Legislative leaders on Thursday rolled out a plan to overhaul the state's education funding system, a $1.5 billion proposal that would ramp up funding to school districts and change how the money is doled out.

The proposal, called the "Student Opportunity Act," would increase Chapter 70 funding to the state's 406 school districts by $1.4 billion in the next seven years, hike special education funding to $90 million a year, provide more money for transportation services and raise the state's spending cap for school construction projects by $150 million to $750 million.

The plan would overhaul how Chapter 70 funds are distributed, giving more to districts with larger numbers of low-income, special education and immigrant students.

The state spent nearly $4.7 billion on schools in the last fiscal year — including Chapter 70 funding and charter school reimbursements. Gov. Charlie Baker has increased Chapter 70 funding in recent years, but how the pool of money is distributed hasn't changed.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo, D-Winthrop, touted the plan as the biggest overhaul since the 1993 Education Reform Act and said it will have a "profound and lasting impact."

"This bill builds upon our ongoing efforts to support the neediest students and to close the opportunity gaps," DeLeo told reporters at a briefing Thursday. "While we are proud of Massachusetts' top rating in education nationally, we want to extend that success to all students."

Senate President Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, said the changes "go beyond" the recommendations of a 2015 commission which found the funding formula is out of whack "to ensure that every single public school district across the state will benefit."

Under the proposal, underperforming districts would be required to come up with plans to close achievement gaps and meet benchmarks. The information would be published online.

Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, a vice-chair of the Legislature's Education Committee that wrote the bill, called the proposal "historic" and said it "takes important steps to implement the recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission, and support low-income students."

The Fund Our Future coalition, which advocates for increased school funding, said its members are "cautiously optimistic" about the proposal.

"We need to fully examine the details, of course, but a much deserved victory is within reach for thousands of educators, parents, students and community members who wrote letters, marched in the streets and continue to demand quality, well-funded public schools for every student in Massachusetts," the group said in a statement.

Lawmakers have been considering dueling plans to update the 26-year-old formula known as the foundation budget. At least two other proposals have failed to win approval.

Gov. Charlie Baker proposes $1.1 billion in additional education funding split between the state and communities over the next seven years, without raising taxes.

The Baker administration argues that educational disparities won't be solved simply through more spending, and that more accountability is needed for failing districts.

Democratic lawmakers have pitched their own plans, arguing that Baker's is too heavy handed and doesn't provide enough money. One proposal, dubbed the "promise act," would overhaul the foundation formula over a five-year period at a cost of up to $2 billion.

Baker spokeswoman Lizzy Guyton said the governor "will carefully review" the latest proposal to "evaluate the fiscal impact, effect on municipal finance and ability to improve our schools for every kid."

A 2015 report determined the school spending formula created under the landmark 1993 education reform law is outdated and shorts school districts by $1 billion to $2 billion a year. Low-income, minority and immigrant students are most affected, the report stated, widening a gap with students in wealthier communities.

The foundation budget uses a complicated formula to determine how much the state gives each community for education. It factors in the size and makeup of a school district’s workforce and student enrollment, among other things.

Set in place in 1993, the funding plan was supposed to be recalculated every four years to reflect changes in costs, but education advocates say that hasn't happened. Many wealthy communities spend more than the minimum required by the state to offset gaps in funding, while less affluent districts are forced to cut sports and arts programs to make up for deficits.

Adding to pressure on lawmakers to get something done is a lawsuit filed in June by parents and several social justice groups. It asks the state's Supreme Judicial Court to declare that students in underfunded districts are being deprived of their right to an equal education.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state's largest teachers' union, issued a statement Thursday saying the latest proposal takes the state a "big step closer to providing the funding that our students and our schools desperately need and deserve."

The union said it would work with lawmakers "to refine and improve the bill where necessary and protect it from changes that would undermine district and educator autonomy."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Salem News and its sister newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

 

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