BOSTON - An agreement announced Wednesday by legislative budget-writers would steer more state dollars to local schools than the $45.6 billion fiscal 2022 spending plan that Gov. Charlie Baker put forward in January.
Ways and Means Committee Chairs Sen. Michael Rodrigues and Rep. Aaron Michlewitz said in a joint statement that they had reached agreement around local aid funding for next year's budget. The House Ways and Means Committee plans to roll out its budget proposal next week.
The deal, Michlewitz and Rodrigues said, includes a $219.6 million increase to Chapter 70 aid to school districts, up from the $197.7 million hike Baker proposed. It would fund unrestricted government aid at $1.16 billion, matching Baker's level.
The two Democrats said their committees' accord "provides certainty and predictability for our cities and towns" and reflects "the advocacy of our respective members in both chambers, school districts and education stakeholders."
The committees said they agreed to fund one-sixth of the implementation of a 2019 school finance reform law and to create a $40 million reserve fund "to stabilize school districts adversely impacted by pandemic-related enrollment changes."
Per-student funding formulas in each year's budget use enrollment numbers from the prior October, and in 2020 those numbers showed an enrollment decline of more than 30,000 students. Officials expect to see many of those students enrolled across the state's 400 school districts again next year, but it's uncertain exactly how many will return after this pandemic-disrupted year.
Last month, school committee members, superintendents and others told the Ways and Means Committees that using the 2020 figures will leave districts short on funds needed to educate the students who will be enrolled come fall 2021. James Peyser, Baker's education secretary, said at the March 16 hearing that federal relief packages will bring significant dollars to Massachusetts schools, and that it would be a "kind of mind-boggling" level of complexity to try to determine enrollment levels by using something other than schools' actual headcounts.
Peyser cautioned against using previous enrollment figures but said "there may be some targeted approach we want to take either with federal money or state dollars to address" issues that could arise in a relatively small number of districts.
A law known as the Student Opportunity Act, signed in November 2019, reworked the state's school funding formula with the goal of better accounting for costs associated with special education, employee health care, and teaching low-income students and those who are learning English.
The $1.5 billion law did not spell out a year-by-year funding schedule but requires the full investment to be made by fiscal year 2027. Baker and lawmakers described it at the time as involving a seven-year phase-in.
They did not begin implementing the law's changes and new funding this year, in fiscal 2021, because of the economic turmoil brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Baker's budget proposes to start by phasing in one-seventh of the required investments in fiscal 2022, while Rodrigues and Michlewitz said they'd agreed to implement one-sixth next year.
The Student Opportunity Act also required districts to submit plans every three years describing how they intend to use the new funds to close achievement gaps.
Ed Lambert of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education said that if lawmakers accelerate the Student Opportunity Act funding, they should also "accelerate the planning and reporting commensurate with that," possibly by requiring districts to amend their first round of plans to account for the higher funding level.
"We support increased funding for education but believe it has to come with some responsibility to spend it wisely, and it would be a real lost opportunity if the combination of this additional funding and the federal funds just disappear into budgets without a solid accounting of how districts plan to spend it," he said.
The alliance last week sent testimony to the Ways and Means Committee, laying out its education-related budget requests. The testimony asks lawmakers to "reject any attempt to loosen the provisions requiring state oversight of district plans to spend SOA funds" and suggests that any increase in education funds beyond what Baker proposed "be earmarked and not go out through Chapter 70 in a way that exceeds the boundaries established in the SOA."
The fiscal 2020 budget, signed four months before the Student Opportunity Act, raised Chapter 70 funding by $268 million. That level, Michlewitz said at the time, marked the largest-ever annual increase to the school aid account. Chapter 70 funding grew by nearly $161 million in fiscal 2019, $119 million in fiscal 2018, and $116 million in fiscal 2017.
Wednesday's announcement, the latest in a series of joint House-Senate statements this session relaying common ground between the two branches ahead of legislative action, comes as state tax collections continue to outpace projections and as state officials try to dissect a flood of newly arriving federal aid.
The Baker administration, Rodrigues and Michlewitz in January agreed to a revenue estimate of $30.12 billion for the 2022 fiscal year, representing the bulk of the money available for them to spend in their budget plans.
The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, in a report outlining issues to watch in the House budget, classified it as "highly unlikely" that the House Ways and Means proposal would adjust the underlying revenue estimate.
"An upgrade to FY 2022 tax revenues may ultimately be warranted, but any such adjustment should be delayed until income tax payments, now due in May, are known," the foundation's preview said.