Ed funding debate comes to Boston Foundation
Lawmakers say state should be held accountable for education funding
Two years after a legislative committee released a report documenting a $2 billion deficit in state education funding, lawmakers and Gov. Charlie Baker are sparring over measure that would tie increases in funding to increased state control over schools and school districts deemed under-performing by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Last week, a trio of lawmakers pushed back on the notion of increasing state intervention during a meeting with a coalition of Latino-led organizations that convened at the Boston Foundation. At the invite-only event state Rep. Andy Vargas of Haverhill and state senators Sonia Chang-Diaz of Jamaica Plain and Jason Lewis of Winchester spoke to members of Latinos for Education, the Greater Boston Latino Network, Amplify Latinx and other groups.
Much of the conversation at the event revolved around the differences between two bills attempting to increase education funding.
Baker’s education funding reform bill calls for increasing overall education spending by $1.1 billion, with a $500 million increase in state funds phased in over seven years. Under this plan, local municipalities would be required to increase spending as well. The PROMISE act, sponsored Chang Diaz of Jamaica Plain and Aaron Vega of Holyoke, would increase state spending by $1 to $2 billion over seven years.
Baker’s bill, House Bill 70, has opened a major fault line among education advocates with its provision that would allow the state to withhold funding from districts that are not adequately implementing school improvement recommendations from the DESE commissioner. Baker’s bill would also give the commissioner enhanced authority to intervene in schools and districts deemed persistently underperforming.
Corporate-funded education reform organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform and Mass Parents United have been advocating on behalf of increased state intervention in struggling school districts. The state’s teachers unions, local elected officials and civil rights groups such as the NAACP Boston Branch are opposed to the increased intervention, arguing that the state ought to be held accountable for its chronic underfunding of local school districts.
The debate found its way into the Latinos for Education meeting at the Boston Foundation last Friday. Vanessa Calderón-Rosado, a member of the Greater Boston Latino Network, asked Chang-Diaz what accountability measures she would support. Diaz pushed back, reiterating the importance of sufficient funding.
“We know money isn’t everything,” Chang-Diaz said. “But if you give a district $50 to do a $100 job, they can have the best teachers in the world and they’re still going to struggle.”
Shana Varón, who heads the Boston Collegiate Charter School and sits on the board of the Massachusetts Association of Public Charter Schools, said she would like to see more accountability measures and said she is concerned that many in Massachusetts are advocating against the state’s standardized testing regime.
Sen. Jason Lewis of Winchester noted that accountability measures are already in place, implemented as part of the 1993 Education Reform Act.
“We put very strong accountability measures in place in 1993,” said Lewis, who is Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Education. “We backed that up with tests. What we haven’t done is deliver the funds for schools to do their work.”
Chang-Diaz noted that the accountability measures put in place in 1993 were enhanced in 2010.
“We have a system for more rapid intervention when we don’t see progress on the achievement gap or school performance,” she said. “The state can step in and take over a district.”
Other than the governor’s call for withholding funds and enhanced interventions, Chang-Diaz said, she hasn’t heard calls for specific additional accountability measures.
“Show me your version of what accountability is,” she said in her response to Calderón-Rosado. “Maybe we’ll agree.”
But with the clock running down on the state budget deliberations, Chang-Diaz said, legislators would have to agree on such measures on an accelerated timeline.
“I don’t want us to go another school year while we dither and talk about accountability,” she said. “Bring your proposal forward.”
While none of the meeting participants cited specific accountability measures they would like to see implemented, Natalia Cuadra-Saez, an organizer with the Boston Teachers Union and a member of Latinos for Education, questioned the efficacy of the state’s accountability measures, noting the widely criticized state takeover of the Dever School and the restructuring of Brighton High School, where half of the teaching force was removed to comply with state turnaround guidelines. At both schools, state interventions appear to have diminished the quality of education students receive.
“I think educators are really exhausted with accountability being put on them and not on the state,” she said. “The students are the ones who are suffering. Things did not get better, they got worse.”
Cuadra-Saez said schools with struggling student populations, such as Brighton High School, where 40 percent of the student body were English language learners and 20 percent were in special education, would better benefit from wraparound services than from removing teachers.
Besides the differences between the PROMISE Act and Baker’s education bill, the lawmakers at the meeting also discussed the need for new revenue. Lewis noted that whether the state commits $500 million, as called for in Baker’s House Bill 70, or the up to $2 billion called for in the PROMISE Act, the state will likely need new taxes to pay for the increased funding.
“I believe in order to do this right, the state will need to raise revenues in a progressive way,” he said. “If we get [the PROMISE Act] passed, don’t all go away. We need everyone to show up and fight.”
Education activists had pinned their hopes on the Fair Share Amendment, a ballot measure prepared in advance of the fall 2018 election that would have taxed income in excess of $1 million at 9 percent — higher than the state’s flat rate of 5.2 percent. The measure, which would have raised as much as $2 billion according to estimates, would have dedicated the funding to state education and transportation needs.
But a coalition of business groups successfully challenged the measure in court, arguing that the state constitution does not allow for ballot measures that raise revenue and commit the revenue to specific allocations. The state’s Supreme Judicial Court ruled in the business groups’ favor, preventing the measure from appearing on the ballot in 2018.
Lawmakers last year filed a similar measure, but because it would require a change to the state’s constitution, it would have to pass two constitutional conventions — a four-year process — before it can appear on the ballot.
Rep. Vargas said the Legislature may be amenable to tax reform measures that could be implemented in the short term.
“I have never seen revenue being talked about as openly as it is now,” he said.
Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera, also in attendance at the Boston Foundation meeting, suggested that lawmakers look for savings in the $42 billion state budget.
But Sen. Lewis cautioned against calls for greater austerity, noting that state lawmakers have also drastically cut funding for public higher education over the last 30 years.
“Our students are not able to go to two-year or four-year colleges because they can’t afford it,” he said.
Lewis also noted that the state has cut funding for mental health and other areas critical to the well-being of its residents.
“I get very nervous when we say we should pit one need against another,” he said.
Former Conservatory Lab Charter School leader Diana Lam, who also served as deputy chancellor of New York City’s public school system, said she is worried about additional funding from the state going into school districts but not reaching into classrooms. She argued that funding should be allocated on a strictly per-pupil basis.
Chang-Diaz countered that the state cannot mandate how districts allocate funds.
“The way the Boston Public Schools allocates their district’s money and the way Lawrence does are different,” she said. “We have to write a law for everyone.”