PEABODY – The Baker administration's top education official pushed back on Monday against the notion that funding and student achievement are directly linked as some lawmakers on the House and Senate budget-writing committee challenged Gov. Charlie Baker's local aid budget.
Education Secretary Jim Peyser, testifying before the Joint Committee on Ways and Means, said flexibility in local schools to customize programming and staffing is just as important, if not more so, as pouring additional tax dollars into local school districts.
"It's not a one-to-one relationship," Peyser said. "Spending money is not nearly as important as spending it well, and we don't always spend it as well as we should."
Peyser called for passage of the PASS Act, sponsored by Rep. Alice Peisch and Sen. Eric Lesser, which would allow school districts with one or more Level 3 school -- those making up the bottom 20 percent of state assessment scores -- to establish an "innovation partnership zone" of two or more schools governed by a board of directors and granted extra autonomy over curriculum, budget, schedule and calendar, staffing, professional development and policies.
The secretary's comments came in response to questioning from House and Senate Democrats over Gov. Baker's $40.9 billion fiscal 2019 budget proposal, which will undergo a re-write this spring when lawmakers will get to put their own stamp on the state's spending plan for next year.
The public hearing at Peabody City Hall was the last for the joint committee, and the House will make the first pass at rewriting the governor's budget when it releases an updated proposal for debate in April.
Peyser defended the administration's commitment to funding elementary and secondary education, and said that with $4.8 billion proposed for K-12 education across all programs the governor has exceeded what would be required to spend under the formulas put in place by the 1993 education reform law.
With the hearing focused on education and local aid, Peyser was in the hot seat after more than 80 legislative Democrats and Republicans wrote to the committee expressing concern that Baker's proposal for a $103 million in Chapter 70 local aid for schools is insufficient.
The legislators and the Massachusetts Municipal Association asked for a minimum aid increase of $100 per pupil, above the $20 per-pupil increase put forward by Baker.
Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat and the Senate co-chair of the Committee on Education, and Sen. Patricia Jehlen, an assistant majority leader, led the pushback against the administration.
"To say that we're spending more than the formula requires is cold comfort for districts at best and is misleading for parents," Chang-Diaz told Peyser.
Citing a more than two-year old commission that recommended a complete overhaul of the state's school funding formula, Chang-Diaz asked Peyser whether the state can "fairly ask schools to perform at the high level we are asking them to perform at if we've not implemented the recommendations?"
Peyser told the panel that the administration has made adjustments to the Chapter 70 funding formula to benefit districts with larger numbers of low-income students, and has made significant progress to implement one of the Foundation Budget Review Commission's recommendations changing the way the formula compensates for health insurance costs.
The governor's budget for fiscal 2019 put $24 million towards the new health insurance factor, on top of $25 million allocated in this year's budget for the same purpose. That investment would put the state one-quarter of the way toward implementing the commission's full health insurance recommendation.
"At some level, there are questions not just about the education budget but the budget writ large. Choices needs to be made and the governor has made these choices, and I think they've been biased toward education," Peyser said.
Jehlen, of Somerville, said increases in spending on Chapter 70 aid for local schools have failed to keep pace with inflation, even if the size of the state investment continues to increase. Baker's budget for fiscal 2019 proposes a 2.6 percent increase in Chapter 70, including $15 million for districts accepting hurricane refugees from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
"I'm finding it hard to square that with the prioritization," Jehlen said.
Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll and Peabody Superintendent Herbert Levine urged lawmakers to find a way to make progress toward implementing recommended reforms to the foundation budget formula for schools.
Driscoll said her city counts on local aid for 25 percent of its budget, and called the underfunding of the charter school reimbursement formula a "significant disincentive" for Salem to be able to support choices for students.
"I'd love for us to be able to determine a way to not have the hostile relationships that exists right now between charter and public school funding," Driscoll said.
Levine echoed Driscoll's concerns.
"Often times with the increases we've had to things like health care, we either receive the same or less than what we received the year before because of the expenses on the other side that we have no control over," Levine said.
Peyser pointed to Lawrence, which was placed into receivership, as an example where he said there is a "misconception" that student achievement growth was the result of the state pouring more money into the district.
"There certainly are resource issues, but I do think a change in strategy that focused more intently on the lowest performing schools and districts and one that empowers educators to make decisions on the ground will make the most change," Peyser said.
Peyser indicated that the administration was "open" to continuing discussions about whether the Chapter 70 foundation funding formula should be "changed, modified or increased," but questioned whether hiking the minimum aid increase to $100 per pupil would hurt low-income districts.
"We'll see what the Legislature decides. That's significant and that could come at the expense of the formula," Peyser said.
Minimum aid guarantees that even districts spending at the recommended foundation level get at least a baseline level of state support outside the funding formula. The MMA said 201 school districts, or 63 percent, would get only a $20 per pupil increase under Baker's budget.
Describing herself as feeling a sense of "disappointment moving more toward outrage," the head of the state's largest teachers union told lawmakers that Baker's budget "underfunds and undervalues public education."
Once inflation and enrollment are factored in, Chapter 70 funds have decreased 5 percent since fiscal 2002, according to the union. "This is completely unacceptable for any state, and particularly for one that holds itself up as an example of public education excellence," Madeloni said.
Madeloni also accused the Baker administration of executing a "stealth privatization agenda," and alleged that by supporting innovation partnership zones and failing to fully reimburse districts that lose funding to charter schools, Baker "follows the lead of his party’s president, Donald Trump, and his party’s secretary of education, Betsy DeVos."
Massachusetts Municipal Association Executive Director Geoff Beckwith was more diplomatic in his written testimony submitted to the Legislature, but expressed similar concerns with Baker's local school aid proposal.
"For many districts, this would represent another in a long series of years of receiving only minimum aid, which has forced a growing reliance on the property tax to fund schools that is not sustainable," Beckwith wrote.