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Lawmakers advance education funding bill

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO
Lawmakers advance education funding bill
Mass Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy and American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts President Beth Kontos address education activists at the State House. BANNER PHOTO

House members passed an education funding reform bill last Wednesday that would increase state spending on Massachusetts K-12 schools by $1.5 billion over a seven-year period, bringing the bill one step closer to being signed into law.

The legislators so far are planning on increasing spending incrementally with no new revenue streams, although the Fair Share Amendment, a proposed change to the state constitution that would increase taxes on incomes of more than $1 million a year, could increase education spending by more than $1 billion if it passes a legislative approval process and voters approve it on a statewide ballot in 2022.

The Student Opportunity Act will now go before a conference committee of Senate and House members to iron out differences between the two versions. Under both chambers’ version of the bill, districts will be required to produce plans to close achievement gaps. The House voted unanimously in support of a version of the bill that would give the state education department the power to veto such plans, while the Senate voted unanimously in favor of a bill that would not.

Legislators and teachers union officials who fought for the Student Opportunity Act said House and Senate versions of the bill are close to reconciliation.

“The last time the House and Senate came to the conference table on this issue, the low-income rate was the biggest gap between the bills,” said state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz who authored an earlier version of the bill last year. “Today, both chambers have passed it with identical equity funding provisions, ensuring these will be included in the conference committee report.”

On the House floor, Rep. James Hawkins of Attleboro argued that the districts’ plans for closing the achievement gap should come entirely from school district officials and members of the local community.

“I’m very concerned that as we deal with accountability, local districts need to have autonomy to work with low-income kids,” he said, speaking on the House floor.

Rep. Joseph Wagner of Chicopee countered that removing the state’s power to veto the plans would “take some of the teeth out of accountability measures” put in place by the legislation.

At issue is the level of control legislators would grant the commissioner of education over districts such as Boston that struggle with large gaps in the test scores and graduation rates between white students and high-income students and black, Latino and low-income students.

American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts President Beth Kontos questioned whether the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education actually has the capacity to review the plans.

“There are 355 school districts in Massachusetts,” she said. “Are we creating a new level of bureaucracy at the department of education to read and approve 355 plans?” she said. “What will happen if they’re not read?”

Kontos pointed out that the law would require districts to formulate their plans in a public process that would give community members a chance to weigh in. Giving state officials veto power would effectively gut the power afforded to communities.

“You have the school committee, the superintendent and the mayor agree on the plan and it gets sent to the department of education and somebody gets to say no?” she said.

Senators and house members will iron out differences in that accountability measure in conference committee, before it reaches the governor’s desk for a signature.

Other measures in the bill that received support from both chambers include a provision to ensure that the legislature reimburses districts for funding lost to charter schools. While the law currently requires such reimbursements to districts, the Legislature has not fully funded the reimbursements. The new amendment would require surplus revenues to be dedicated to charter reimbursements before any such funding goes into the state’s so-called rainy day fund.

The bill implements the major recommendations of the Legislature’s Foundation Budget Review Commission, adjusting the formula for school funding to account for increased costs of employee health insurance and educating special education students and English language learners.

“It meets all the criteria,” Chang-Diaz said of the Student Opportunity Act.

Chang-Diaz, who supports the Fair Share amendment, said funding the law will require the addition of new revenue, noting that the state budget has been operating with a structural deficit and is unable to fully fund all the programs legislators have deemed necessary throughout state government.

“We should be real with people about the dramatically underfunded education and transportation budgets in Massachusetts,” she said.

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