Here we go again!
State Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz has again put forward an ambitious bill to increase funding for Massachusetts public schools. Again, a large and vocal coalition has assembled behind it. And yet the new bill’s path to passage remains uncertain, though it does have some powerful new supporters.
Last summer, the Jamaica Plain Democrat watched in frustration as a prior incarnation of her "foundation budget" bill — which might send $1 billion or more to schools, and which had passed the Senate unanimously — collapsed in conference committee at the bitter end of the legislative session.
The reason for that collapse remains somewhat mysterious, but clearly Chang-Diaz’s bill suffered without the support of Gov. Charlie Baker, House Speaker Robert DeLeo or Boston Mayor Marty Walsh.
This go-round, she says, should be different.
“This is not about three people,” Chang-Diaz said, but about securing an unprecedented, bipartisan commitment to common-sense fixes to what she describes as a funding emergency in many of the state's schools.
Then again, Chang-Diaz did announce with pleasure that Mayor Walsh will give his “enthusiastic” support to the latest incarnation of her bill at a press conference Wednesday morning.
The Situation In Boston
Boston is in an unusual situation when it comes to school funding. Due to its considerable property-tax revenue, the state treats it like an affluent suburb and gives it only the minimum aid, covering (in theory) just 17.5 percent of its school spending.
That being said, Boston educates more than its share of Massachusetts' most vulnerable (and therefore resource-intensive) students. For example, Interim Superintendent Laura Perille highlighted the district's concentration of "dually identified students" — students who might have to learn English and contend with learning disabilities or poverty at the same time.
Meanwhile, the city is still losing students — and, therefore, education dollars — to the growing charter school sector. And though the state is supposed to reimburse the district to soften those losses, they have increasingly failed to do so in recent years.
Boston officials say all that adds up to a future that looks untenable: "More and more of our education aid ... goes right back out the door before Boston ever sees it," said the city's budget director, Justin Sterritt.
The city projects that, if nothing changes, it will receive no net state education aid within the next two years — most of it lost to the rising cost of charter schools. Walsh called it "robbing Peter to pay Paul."
Boston Backs A Reshaped Bill
So what brought about the change of heart? A change in the bill itself.
"We’ve put in some bottom-line, safe-harbor provisions to make sure that … money is going to follow [every] student, including the minimum state share that should follow that student," Chang-Diaz said.
The new version of the bill introduces a concept of a "district student aid floor," one that city officials said was informed by projections conducted by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center. In effect, it would put the state on the hook to help districts like Boston that are seeing their promised aid gobbled up by the cost of charter school tuition.
If you look at the city's "cherry sheet" — its account book of state funds — for this fiscal year, officials expect a total of $242 million in education aid and charter reimbursements. But then they expect to send $196 million back out to charter schools. That works out to a net $46 million, around 4 percent of the city's $1.1 billion annual spending on its schools.
The new bill would seek to ensure, in effect, that Boston would get annual increases in state aid so that they continually net, at least, the 17.5 percent aid after all their charter dollars are sent.
That tweak, Sterritt said, would result in a slightly more expensive bill — costing a projected $1.5 billion, as opposed to around $1 to 1.2 billion — but one that will work better for urban districts.
"I'm not anti-charter school," Walsh said Tuesday. "This is about coming up with a formula that works for everybody." He was flanked by two mayors who agreed: Dan Rivera of Lawrence and Stephanie Burke of Medford.
Rivera, who has overseen Lawrence's climb out of state receivership, said that "every year, we're taking more money out of our reserves to balance the books on the public school side" owing to the cost of charter schools and other structural problems.
Both Rivera and Burke supported Chang-Diaz's bill last session, but both asserted that this version represents a step forward for their constituents.
The Second Battle Of Beacon Hill
Last session, Baker largely kept mum about Chang-Diaz's bill.
But as he was inaugurated last week, he spoke out, saying: "the foundation formula" — the way the state calculates the minimum cost of education in a district — "needs to be updated, and we’ll propose updates when our budget is filed later this month."
Representatives from Baker's office would not comment on what form those updates would take, pending those forthcoming updates. But Baker and some on his staff have suggested that they will look for ways to improve schools' practices alongside the added funding.
In his address, Baker said he would look to offer "opportunities for under-performing school districts to invest jointly with the Department of Education in proven best practices." And his secretary of education, Jim Peyser, said in a statement: "As important as this increased investment is, how much the state spends is ultimately not as important as how well we spend it."
The governor's framing appeals to Keri Rodrigues, a parent activist who supports school choice, among other causes. Rodrigues says Massachusetts' "achievement gap" is so dire — ranking the state 48th in the nation, by some counts — that the state should eschew no-strings-attached spending in favor for targeted reforms designed to close that gap.
In the Chang-Diaz/Walsh proposal, Rodrigues said, "I don't see a plan. All I see is money — and money without direction. That is irresponsible."
But that earned pushback from the group congregating behind the new bill, which will be filed Wednesday morning.
Rivera bristled at the notion, put forward by Baker, that Lawrence's recent resurgence under its appointed receiver, Jeff Riley, "proved" that reforms like "acceleration academies" can turn around educational results on their own.
"In business, there's this thing called a 'proof of concept,' " Rivera said. "You gotta do that on a shoestring. But now that stuff works, you gotta pay for it." Like Walsh, Rivera sold the new spending as an investment in the future of the commonwealth: "These kids have to be learning at a high level and, frankly, that costs money."
Chang-Diaz, for her part, described education reform as a "three-legged stool": coupling spending with school accountability and choice. She gestured back to the school accountability reforms she supported back in 2010, which expanded charter schools and toughened state oversight of public schools.
"In the past five to ten years, we have really jacked up the legs of the stool having to do with accountability and choice... [and] we have let the leg of the stool having to do with funding shrink," Chang-Diaz said.
As to those arguing that schools need yet more reforms in exchange for new spending, she said supporters are "going to have to make the case for what's wrong with the system that we currently have."
Walsh agreed, inviting any critics of new, "no strings attached" spending to "come spend a week with the school department and tell me where the reforms are."
It could be weeks before the governor files his own counter-proposal. But other diverse groups — including pro-charter nonprofits and teachers' unions, not natural allies — are asking for something to be done for public schools' bottom lines, and as soon as possible.
Chang-Diaz hopes this coalition — now a little bigger — will prevent last session's nightmare from becoming a recurring one. Hence the early start on the bill's filing. She said she doesn't want what could be a broad and contentious conversation about the cost of public education to fall apart as the clock strikes midnight.
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"It’s going to be a game changer," Chang-Díaz said. "I know it's going to take time for the MCAD to fill the staffing shortages that they've been experiencing in recent years, but this is a huge step forward."