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Chang-Diaz seeks breakthrough for funding of education reform

By Jennifer Smith | Jun 27, 2019

A sweeping effort to overhaul the state’s 26-year-old education funding formula is still in the joint Education Committee as a vocal coalition of proponents keep pushing for movement. The bill is similar to an earlier effort that died in conference committee last year, though new provisions to address the cost of charter reimbursements would offer a potential boost to cities like Boston.

Both the PROMISE ACT, put forward by a group of lawmakers led by state Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz (Jamaica Plain), and Gov. Charlie Baker’s current education proposal were contrasted in a Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center report last week. The think tank analysis determined that the senator’s bill, sponsored in the House by Reps. Aaron Vega and Mary Keefe, would by 2026 allocate about $1.41 billion more to schools than the current projections and $946.3 million more than Governor Baker’s plan. Baker’s proposal would direct an additional $460 million per year to districts beyond the current formula.

In an extended interview during and after The Horse Race podcast last week, Chang-Díaz told the Reporter that the dramatic funding boost is necessary to fully meet the state’s obligation to provide a quality education to its students while grappling with the greater cost of educating disadvantaged children. It expands on the bipartisan though last-minute efforts of the last cycle.

“People worked really hard with the just grueling schedule over the course of that week to try and arrive at a compromise. We were not able to,” Chang-Díaz said of the failed negotiations last year, which remain opaque because of legislature rules covering conference committees. “And the major difference between the bill that had passed the House last year and the bill that passed the Senate last year, as with the bills that we see – the governor’s bill versus the PROMISE Act this year – was about what do we do with respect to low income students?

“There were also differences last year around what is the right way to account for the cost of educating English learners in the formula,” Chang-Diaz said. “There’s less daylight between the proposals on that this year. But the biggest difference by far was, and still is, how do we properly account for what it costs to close achievement gaps for low income students?”

The last major change to the education funding formulas came back in 1993, with a related lawsuit looming over the state.

“When we passed the 1993 Education Reform Act, which was a landmark piece of legislation, we made the right promises, the right commitments, and did a lot of things right in the law,” Chang-Díaz said. “That still persists today. We said we are going to not allow these cavernous gaps between the haves and the have-nots to persist in our state.”

One problem, she said, is the formula has slowly “eroded” and become less well-matched to the educational reality over time as the internet became a necessary tool and health care and special education costs increased.

Another problem is “things that we never got right in the formula,” she said. “So, we’ve been doing it wrong for 25 years.”

This category is what education advocates and PROMISE Act supporters are really digging in on: Actually investing enough to close the opportunity gaps that the 1993 legislation identified.

A 2015 commission that Chang-Díaz was a part of “made recommendations about mathematical changes we need to make to the formula in order to more accurately account for what it takes to move a low income kid, to sort of bridge that gap.”

The Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, which did not make recommendations in its report, offered a clear metric for the difference between bills. Schools would receive boosts in their funding relative to the proportion to the number of low-income students they serve.

“While this would only provide a 9 percent increase for the most affluent districts, it would roughly double the amount of extra funding for the highest poverty schools,” the report states. “While moving to 100 percent additional funding for kids experiencing poverty would be a significant increase, it is in line with school finance research stretching back several decades.”

This goes far beyond the maximum 20 percent increase in funding for areas with high proportions of low-income students under the governor’s bill. Baker’s proposal, a spokeswoman for Education Secretary Jim Peyser told CommonWealth Magazine, “is funded with existing revenues, with investments beginning immediately and can be sustained over time.”

The PROMISE Act is a more expensive bill and would not work with existing revenues. There is not a potential revenue stream cited to immediately fund the bill should it pass, as a push to impose a tax surcharge on income greater than $1 million would take years and a constitutional amendment to become law.

Backed by the Massachusetts Teachers Alliance and the Fund Our Future organization, the PROMISE Act also has 117 legislators as co-sponsors, including Dorchester and Mattapan elected officials like state Sen. Nick Collins and state Reps. Russell Holmes, Dan Hunt, Dan Cullinane, Liz Miranda, and David Biele.

Mayor Martin Walsh joined the chorus supporting the PROMISE Act this year, as one provision could bring a windfall to Boston by providing a minimum amount of state funding to cities after their share of obligatory state is paid to the municipality’s charter schools. Boston would stand to receive up to $100 million in state aid through this minimum aid change. Gov. Baker’s bill would also address Chapter 70 funding issues, with his formula giving Boston another $16 million after it took effect.

A March hearing at the State House tackled the PROMISE Act. Chang-Díaz notes that they have now had the better part of two legislative cycles to discuss the proposed changes – through the prior bill and the PROMISE Act – and hopes to see some progress in the near future.

“Folks said after the end of the conference committee last year, we’re going to keep working on this,” she said. “So, it’s been more than three months that we’ve had to work on it… I’m hopeful that the bill is going to come out soon from committee because we urgently need to pass this before the beginning of the next school year.”

Chang-Díaz also drew a parallel between the strained education funding and other struggling systems.

“Honestly, I see a lot of parallels between the education space and the transportation space,” Chang-Díaz said. “We have decades worth of deferred maintenance. That’s rearing its head in a way that’s impossible to ignore. And with the train derailments, it happens in a big sort of explosive way – it involves a lot of human bodies all at once… With the education system, there are what I would call individual train derailments that are happening every day.”

The interview took place in the week after a Red Line train derailment tangled the entire area’s infrastructure and a double homicide shook Jamaica Plain.

The entire interview with Chang-Diaz and other episodes of The Horse Race, a political podcast hosted by Reporter news editor Jennifer Smith and MassINC Polling Director Steve Koczela, are available online and wherever podcasts are found.


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