More than 100 people testified today at a hearing on the PROMISE Act, a proposed public school funding overhaul. If passed, the bill would update the formula the state uses to fund to schools, which educators, legislators and activists say is outdated and insufficient.
Out of the 105 people who testified between 10 a.m., when the hearing opened and 4 p.m. some 74 people including students, parents, educators, mayors, community leaders, NFL players, civil rights advocates and technology leaders spoke in favor of the act, according to a release.
Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz, a Democrat from Boston is the lead Senate sponsor. She said the act would help fix what she called a broken education funding system.
"Our kids are counting on us to do the right thing when it comes to closing opportunity gaps and restoring the quality education we promised every child in Massachusetts. The PROMISE Act is only bill that implements all five recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission and the only bill that gives low-income students the same kind of support their more affluent peers already receive," she said to the Education Committee in a packed hearing room.
Chang-Díaz and Reps. Aaron Vega (D-Holyoke) and Mary Keefe (D-Worcester) filed the bill, which is backed by 119 legislators, including majorities in both the House and Senate.
Massachusetts passed an education reform bill in 1993, after it was sued, creating the current Chapter 70 formula to fund each school district based on enrollment, student demographics and a few other factors, including how wealthy a community is.
Basically, wealthier communities get less state funding, but there were still gaps.
A bipartisan 2015 commission, the Foundation Budget Review Commission, tasked with looking into the Chapter 70 formula reported the state underestimated the resources needed by $1-2 billion every year. To close achievement gaps, especially for English Language learners many of whom, the commission found, were children from war torn regions or refugees, changes were necessary, it said. It also found that the state hadn't updated the formula to keep up with rising health care and special education costs.
The commission made five key recommendations to change the formula. And that became the PROMISE Act. Those include accounting for districts' health care costs by going by Group Insurance Commission rates; Modernizing low income components, increasing the in-district Special Education enrollment rate to 16 percent and increase the out of district cost rate; establishing a data advisory task force; and let districts have the option of manually counting their low-income students.
Juan Cofield, president of NAACP New England Area Conference spoke in favor Friday.
"Unfortunately, today the quality of a student's education in public schools is too often reflected by their race or national origin, or the income level of their family. More often than not, students of color and students from low income families are afforded a sub-par education, short of what was anticipated or what is required by the constitution of this Commonwealth, as interpreted by the Hancock and McDuffy courts," he said.
In the summer of 2018, Gov. Charlie Baker, who supports the act, too, signed the FY19 state budget that authorizes $4,907,573,321 in Chapter 70 education aid to Massachusetts school districts. This budget increased aid by $161 million or 3.4 percent over the year before.
"Our children suffer daily from a chronic and shameful lack of resources in their schools," said Gladys Vega, executive director of Chelsea Collaborative. "Students graduating this year from our public schools have endured under-funding for their entire educational careers. Low-income and English learner students suffer the most under the current Foundation Budget formula. It's time to rethink how we fund our schools, direct resources to our neediest students and districts, and honor our children's constitutional rights to a quality public education."
Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins has also thrown her support behind the act.
"We can either pay on the front end and invest in education and potential or pay on the back end with lost opportunity, growing inequality, and significantly higher rates of criminal justice system involvement," she said according to a release.
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“Without a license, a routine traffic stop can have a lasting and traumatic set of repercussions: arrest, ICE detention, deportation. It can tear families apart, and that is a heavy, heavy burden to carry."
“It has been a long, long road for this bill,” Sen Chang-Díaz said. “This bill means trust and dignity for immigrants in our state who lack federal status.”