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House, Senate, gov. float versions of funding reform

Trea Lavery
House, Senate, gov. float versions of funding reform
Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, with reps Mary Keith and Aaron Vega. PHOTO: TREA LAVERY

In an hours-long hearing at the Massachusetts State House on Friday, more than 100 people testified before the state Legisture’s Education Committee that public schools around the state need more funding.

The room was packed with hundreds of people wanting to lend their voice, and speakers included students, parents, teachers, activists, legislators and even New England Patriots players.

“We must not resign ourselves to another generation of state and district finger-pointing, another generation of shackled economy with an undereducated workforce, another generation of acting surprised when low-income black and brown students are reading, testing, graduating, attending college and finding career success in drastically lower rates than their peers,” said state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, who spoke at the hearing on behalf of her education funding reform bill, known as the PROMISE Act. “In other words, a generation of planned failure.”

Reps. Jason Lewis and Alice Peisch. PHOTO: TREA LAVERY

Reps. Jason Lewis and Alice Peisch. PHOTO: TREA LAVERY

The bill, filed in the House by Reps. Mary Keefe of Worcester and Aaron Vega of Holyoke, would fully implement all of the recommendations made in 2015 by the Foundation Budget Review Commission, and was favored by many of those who testified at the hearing.

Two other bills competing with the PROMISE Act are Governor Charlie Baker’s education funding proposal and another by Rep. Paul Tucker.

While Tucker’s bill has not gained much traction as it contains much less detail on funding plans than the other two bills, both the PROMISE Act and Baker’s proposal would implement the recommendations of the FBRC. Chang-Diaz has said that her bill would provide between $900 million and $2 billion in funding but does not state a specific timeline; the Governor’s proposal would provide $1.1 billion (in 2019 dollars) over the course of seven years.

The FBRC was established to review the state’s foundation budget, a formula introduced by the 1993 Education Reform Act that sets a minimum for how much money a school needs to adequately serve its students. Recommendations by the FBRC included increasing funding for health insurance, special education, English language learners and districts with a high concentration of low-income students.

Baker opened the testimony by speaking on behalf of his bill.

“Year after year, our students rank number one in many academic measures, including the National Assessment of Educational Progress,” Baker said. “Unfortunately, this success has not been shared by all communities or all students at equal rates. In many communities, we see persistent achievement gaps and missed opportunities, especially in urban schools with high concentrations of low-income students and English language learners.”

While all present agreed that the foundation budget needs to be updated to provide more school funding, many, including both activists and some members of the Education Committee, have criticized Baker’s proposal for not going far enough, both because of its seven-year phase-in and the fact that much of its funding increase would either come from local, not state spending, or be accounted for by inflation anyway.

Mayoral Support

Mayor Martin Walsh spoke in favor of the PROMISE Act, saying that it would prevent net education funding in the city from reaching zero within two years due to charter school reimbursements.

“Funding education is a partnership between the Commonwealth and all of the communities,” Walsh said. “It’s not a backstop. It’s not a bonus. It’s not a handout. It’s a partnership embedded in our state’s Constitution as a duty we owe to every child in every city and every town.”

Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins told the Committee that more funding for education would prevent students, especially boys of color, from becoming entrenched in the criminal justice system in the future.

“The PROMISE Act would create a meaningful change in the futures of children at greatest risk of poverty, crime and lack of opportunity,” Rollins said. “We can either pay at the front end and invest in education and potential, or pay at the back end with lost opportunity, growing inequality and significantly higher rates of criminal justice system involvement.”

Everyone who testified agreed that for Massachusetts students to succeed, the state needs to take a close look at the foundation budget. Zena Link, a public school teacher who has taught at schools in both Worcester and Weston, underscored the problem with the funding formula, saying that her experience highlights the differences in resources for districts with vastly different income levels.

“Every student deserves a well-rounded K-12 education, but the state’s generations-long underfunding of local public schools has left far too many students in schools that lack even the basics, like small class sizes, music and art, STEM education and adequate public school staffing that includes counselors, paraprofessionals and librarians,” Link said. “I’ve seen firsthand what it means when some students are given ample resources to succeed and others are not.”

Shailany Ortega, a 17-year old Boston senior at the Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers and a member of the Boston Student Advisory Council, echoed Link’s statements with her own experience, which started as a North Andover public school student.

“My North Andover Schools had all the resources a school needs to give its students a full and interactive education, things like new textbooks and modern technology in our STEM classes,” Ortega said. “I transferred to the Curley School in Boston in the eighth grade and immediately noticed a difference in my school environment. … A lot of students don’t know what a good school looks like. They think what they have is what education looks like across the board. But I’ve seen the best and the worst and I know we can do better.”

Ortega told the Banner that even though she was graduating, she wanted to help change the future of other Massachusetts public school students, like her younger sister.

While education funding reform has been proposed in recent years, it has always stalled due to differing opinions on what is enough, and this year, advocates want that to change.

“Our first-graders only have one first grade. Our seniors only have one high school experience,” Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera told the Committee. “We hope you act sometime this year.”

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