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New effort launched to change education funding priorities

January 9, 2019

BOSTON (AP) — The question of how to best distribute state education dollars is emerging as a top issue in Massachusetts’ new legislative session, as mayors, lawmakers and educational advocates pressed Wednesday for increased funding for public schools, especially in poorer communities.

The renewed effort comes months after the breakdown of negotiations between the House and Senate on the subject and as legislators try to narrow the educational achievement gap between students from richer and poorer areas. Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, in his recent inaugural address, also said he would propose revisions to the state’s formula for distributing billions to school districts each year.

The 25-year-old formula created under a major education reform law is now widely viewed as outdated.

“When education reform happened in 1993, it was landmark. It was great, it was groundbreaking,” said Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. “But that was the 20th century. And that 20th century formula doesn’t work for a 21st century education anymore.”

The bill filed on Monday would implement key recommendations from a 2015 commission that examined the original formula, intended to guarantee that all school districts — regardless of size and income variations — could deliver quality education to its pupils.

The formula, the commission said, did not properly account for the growing number of English-language learners and students requiring special education, along with rising health care costs for school districts. The result was a $1 billion to $2 billion annual shortfall in education funding.

Both legislative chambers approved reform bills during the 2017-2018 session, but a House-Senate conference committee failed to broker a compromise during occasionally contentious talks last summer.

Backers of the Senate bill said the House version, while calling for increased spending on special education and employee health care, failed to adequately increase funding for schools with high percentages of low-income students and English-language learners. The House instead called for the hiring of a research consultant to determine how much should be spent on those two groups.

“There are no more excuses. ... There are no more ‘wait until next year,’ it is time to keep our promises,” said Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Boston Democrat and lead sponsor of the new bill. “We must act with urgency.”

Chang-Diaz, who co-chairs the Legislature’s Education Committee, called for lawmakers to put aside differences and pass the current bill before the next school year begins in September.

Democratic Rep. Alice Peisch, the committee’s other co-chair, said the House is committed to working on the issue this year to “develop a plan that not only provides the necessary funding to all districts but also ensures that funding reaches the students it is intended to support.”

Democratic House Speaker Robert DeLeo also said the chamber would continue its work to update the funding formula.

“The House will continue to prioritize its commitment to funding and supporting our schools, and we look forward to working with our colleagues in the Senate on this important issue this session,” DeLeo said in statement Wednesday.

Chang-Diaz said estimates of what the bill would cost range from $900 million to $2 billion over an initial five-year implementation period. The measure does not specify where the revenue would come from, though she said it would likely not require new taxes in the current fiscal year.

Though framed by some speakers at Wednesday’s event as a clash of “haves and have-nots,” proponents of the bill said every school district in the state, regardless of relative wealth, would realize at least some additional funding.

Jose Cruz, a 13-year-old middle-school student from Chelsea, asked lawmakers to remember students like him who come from neighborhoods beset by violence, poverty and substandard housing, and who lack access to after-school programs and other educational opportunities enjoyed by those in more affluent areas.

“The reason I’m stating these challenges is because I would like for you to understand what conditions that youth have to live in inner-city environments,” he said.

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