House and Senate negotiators on Tuesday filed a compromise bill that would boost the amount of state K-12 education funding by $1.5 billion over the next seven years, concentrating a considerable percentage of that increase on struggling, low-income urban school districts.
The bill, dubbed the Student Opportunity Act, represents the most significant update to the funding formula since it was established as part of the 1993 Education Reform Act.
A compromise on language intended to ensure that these education investments produce results that “strikes the right balance” between district decision-making and state oversight, said state Rep. Alice Peisch, a Wellesley Democrat.
Similar to the House bill, the compromise (S 2412) legislation still requires districts to develop and make public plans to close achievement gaps, and to amend plans that don’t conform with the bill’s requirements, as determined by the state education commissioner.
Previous Senate language left just about all facets of those achievement-gap remedies up to individual districts.
Gov. Charlie Baker had viewed the Senate’s original version as a weakening of the initial committee bill.
However, the bill would allocate far more money than the governor’s ed-funding proposal, which would boost state aid to districts by about $460 million — roughly one-third of what the compromise bill seeks.
Baker warned in a September Boston Globe op-ed that bigger increases in state aid would require communities to significantly increase local school spending and could require property tax increases.
The compromise bill doesn’t provide any new taxes or include appropriations, leaving funding decisions to be made on a yearly basis.
According to Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Michael Rodrigues (D-Westport), the bill will cost around $300 million more each year during the seven-year phase-in period. That pace reflects the House’s preference. The initial Senate version would have increased spending by more than $1 billion annually.
Baker will have an opportunity to offer amendments when the bill gets to his desk, but it’s unlikely he could sustain any veto of its main provisions.
The state’s pledge to expend an additional $1.5 billion would primarily benefit those communities struggling to close achievement gaps.
The bill “represents a nation-leading model for education funding equity,” according to Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, who co-chaired the Education Committee in the last legislative session.
Diaz (D-Boston) was a member of the special commission formed in 2015 to review the state formula used to fund public education. That panel concluded it underfunds the cost of education by around $1 billion a year because it doesn’t accurately account for the costs of special education, employee health insurance, teaching English language learners and educating students in districts with high concentrations of poverty — all shortcomings that hit Gateway Cities especially hard.
This compromise bill would provide additional money for each of those categories, with the biggest funding increases going to districts with large numbers of poor students and English language learners, which should mean millions more in annual education aid for Lowell and Fitchburg.
Lowell’s current $188.9 million school budget includes a $9 million increase in Chapter 70 funds — a figure that will certainly grow significantly under this spending bill.
It will be up to school departments in Lowell, Fitchburg and other Gateway Cities to demonstrate that this extra funding will go to where it’s most needed — educating their diverse student population.
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