What's Behind The Beacon Hill Battle Over School Funding

Jul 12, 2018

Massachusetts House lawmakers have passed a measure that would make major changes to public education funding, but some school advocates say the measure falls short — particularly compared to the Senate version.

It’s the latest chapter in a three-year fight over funding shortfalls and a decades-old formula that determines how much money schools should spend and how much the state should kick in to help.

In 2015, a state commission found that Massachusetts public schools don’t have the funds they need to educate all their students — by an estimated $1 to 2 billion.

Fixing The Formula

Since 1993, Massachusetts has had a “foundation budget.” It’s a formula that calculates how much districts need to spend on their students and how much state aid they should get toward that end. That formula assumes that certain students will cost more than others.

The foundation budget was supposed to be updated regularly, but it hasn’t been. That has meant that a few 21st-century costs have risen well beyond what the state’s budget math predicted in the 1990s.

When the Foundation Budget Review Commission (FBRC) met in 2015, it offered four principal recommendations about how the state could recalibrate its decades-old funding formula in particularly expensive areas: students with unique needs and the fast-growing costs of health care.

Those recommendations were:

Peg the projected costs of employee health care to rising costs statewide.

Increase the projected costs of special education by a quarter of a percentage point.

Change the way funding for English learners is calculated: adding a $2,361 ‘increment’ on top of the base rate for each student.

And, move the projected extra funding needed for low-income students to a higher range, giving 50 to 100 percent more funding than their wealthier peers.

One Fell Swoop, Or A Half Measure

In May, the state senate unanimously passed a bill that would begin the process of meeting those four recommendations in the years ahead.

In that effort, they were led by state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, co-chair of the legislature’s joint committee on education as well as a member of the FBRC back in 2014 and ’15. The commission arrived at its recommendations after months of hearings and expert testimony. And this session’s Senate bill hews close to those recommendations, though it leaves some room for lawmakers to make annual adjustments.

“You never have 100 percent information,” Chang-Diaz explained. “So you set up a rigorous process for collecting what is knowable, and then you reach a point where you’re making decisions.” 

Chang-Diaz and others who served said emphatically that the FBRC did not rank its four priorities, and wanted all four met in one fell swoop.

That’s not what the House bill would do. Instead, it would establish a clear funding path for the first two of those four costs — employee health care and special education — which tend to affect all communities statewide. The House measure calls for those needs to be fully funded by fiscal year 2024, although they would be subject to changes in annual “cost estimates.”

But when it comes to ELL and low-income students, the House bill calls for the appointment of “an independent research consultant” by the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education to determine the appropriate amount of aid for those students.

That doesn’t have to slow down funding changes, said Representative Alice Peisch of Wellesley: “The report [on additional funding] is due in less than six months.” Peisch co-chairs the education committee with Chang-Diaz, and co-chaired the FBRC three years ago. Peisch said that second review would still give lawmakers enough time to factor those findings into next year’s budget. (It would also push those findings until after this fall’s votes for governor and all of the seats in the legislature.)

The House bill was held up in committee for the past two months, which Peisch said has led to a better sense of where things stand with state finances.

Last month, the state’s highest court struck down the prospect of a “millionaire’s tax” ballot initiative that would in part have funded education.

“Unlike when the Senate bill was passed, we now know that there will not be a ballot question that has the potential for providing additional revenue. I think that changes the landscape,” Peisch said.

Further Study

The idea of more research has some advocates anxious about further delays in setting school budgets aright.

“If we don’t put [funding for English learners] in right now, who knows many more years it will take?,” asked Vanessa Calderón-Rosado, director of Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción, a group that works with Latinx families in greater Boston. “If we want to close the achievement gap, if we’re talking about education equity — this is the time to do it.”

In a petition published late Tuesday, the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance faulted the House bill for wanting to repeat a rigorous analysis already done in 2015 by the FBRC.

The petition asks, “How can the Legislature ask English language learners and low-income students to stand at the back of the line any longer?” MEJA calls for activists to support an amendment, put forward by Rep. Aaron Vega, that would bring the House bill closer to its Senate counterpart.

Peisch denied that her House bill is less ambitious. “I don’t call this a stripped-down bill,” she said, pointing to its relatively fixed five-year timeline for changes to spending on health benefits and special education. She argued that the Senate bill — with its annual recalculation — adds an unnecessary “extra step” to the process of expanding funding.

Now, the focus turns to conference committee, where these two somewhat dissonant bills will need to be brought into harmony.

This report was originally published by WBUR.