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Baker unveils $42.7B budget with education funding overhaul

January 23, 2019
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Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker faces reporters as he unveils his state budget proposal during a news conference, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019, at the Statehouse, in Boston. During remarks Baker spoke about his administration's plan for revamping the state's public school funding formula, including targeted spending increases for low-income and special education students. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
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Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker faces reporters as he unveils his state budget proposal during a news conference, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019, at the Statehouse, in Boston. During remarks Baker spoke about his administration's plan for revamping the state's public school funding formula, including targeted spending increases for low-income and special education students. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

BOSTON (AP) — Gov. Charlie Baker rolled out a $42.7 billion state budget Wednesday, accompanied by a plan to overhaul the state’s 25-year-old education funding formula that critics contend shortchanges many students with special needs and those from low-income, minority or immigrant families.

The Republican’s proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 calls for a 1.5 percent increase over what Massachusetts is projected to spend in the current fiscal year. It would not raise any broad-based state taxes, but does propose a new tax on pharmaceutical companies that sell opioid medications and a previously announced hike in the real estate transfer tax to pay for a climate change initiative.

Central to Baker’s plan, however, are his proposed changes to what’s known as the Foundation Budget, a 25-year-old formula meant to ensure that public schools have adequate money to serve the educational needs of all children.

The budget would boost the state’s share of education funding by $262 million in the next fiscal year. The proposed revamp of the formula would increase spending by $1.1 billion over seven years, according to administration officials.

James Peyser, the state’s education secretary, declared Massachusetts could meet the additional commitments without having to raise taxes.

Efforts to revise the formula have been dragging on, unresolved, since 2015 when a special commission determined that public schools were between $1 billion and $2 billion short of the funding they needed and that students from poorer, urban school districts were bearing the brunt of the shortfall.

The commission recommended that more funding be directed toward students from low-income areas and for those needing special education services or who are learning English. The panel also called for adjustments to reflect the rising cost of providing health insurance for school employees.

Under Baker’s bill, all school districts, regardless of relative wealth, would receive at least a $20 per pupil increase in overall state funding. There would additionally be a $13.6 million increase for districts with large numbers of English-language learners, a $12.8 million hike for districts with the highest percentages of low-income students, and $30.6 million more for health care.

“While this increased investment is incredibly important, how we spend it is equally important to ensure we are using strategies and providing programs that accelerate learning for all students and close achievement gaps,” said Peyser, in a statement.

Baker’s plan doesn’t go far enough in addressing the needs of students from the state’s poorest school districts, according to advocates of a separate bill filed earlier this month by a group of Democratic lawmakers and dubbed the PROMISE act.

Lisa Guisbond, executive director of Citizens for Public Schools, said the governor’s plan would only make a “dent” in the underfunding of education, falling short of what was needed to provide a quality education to every student in Massachusetts.

“We don’t need Baker’s cautious steps, and we don’t need to punish kids whose underfunded schools can’t keep up,” she said.

Marie-Frances Rivera, interim President of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, said more revenue was needed than the amount proposed by Baker and said changes to the formula should be implemented within five years rather than seven.

Baker’s budget and the separate bill to revamp the education formula now go to the Democratic-controlled Legislature for what is expected to be several months of review.

The tax on opioid manufacturers is estimated to bring in $14 million in the next fiscal year and is part of $266 million included in the budget for substance abuse prevention and treatment. More than a dozen other states have considered a similar tax on pharmaceutical companies, but so far only New York has enacted one.

The drug manufacturers “have a lot to do with creating a crisis that we all are paying for every day and creating a mechanism in which they put something in to help pay for the carnage they’ve created I think is important,” Baker said.

The governor’s spending plan assumes $35 million in revenue from sports betting in Massachusetts that still must be authorized by lawmakers. It also estimates the state will take in $133 million in marijuana taxes during the first full year of legal cannabis sales. The budget also calls for applying the state’s cigarette excise tax to e-cigarettes and other vaping products and would require online marketplaces, such as eBay and Etsy, to collect and pay Massachusetts sales taxes.

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Associated Press writer Steve LeBlanc contributed to this report.

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