The Massachusetts Legislature is heading into its August break on Thursday with a major piece of unfinished business: education funding.
“I think disappointed is not even as strong as we can get,” said Charlotte Kelly, executive director of the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance, a group that advocates for increased public school funding. “We’ve let an entire high school class of seniors graduate through underfunded schools, and we haven’t done a single thing.”
In 2015, the Foundation Budget Review Commission identified several areas in which the current public school funding formula underfunds education. Last legislative session, both the House and the Senate passed education funding bills but were unable to reach a final compromise.
This year, Gov. Charlie Baker released his proposal in January for revamping the formula.
The Senate and House then followed with their own proposals, each of which would spend a different amount of money and allocate it in a different way.
The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education is working on coming up with a compromise bill for consideration this session.
In June, a group of parents filed a lawsuit challenging the school funding formula in an attempt to force the Legislature to act.
Previously, legislative leaders said they were hoping to have a bill ready to go this summer. The Boston Globe reported in May that Education Committee House Chairman Jason Lewis, D-Winchester, said he wanted a bill unveiled in June, while Senate Chairwoman Alice Peisch, D-Wellesley, said she was hopeful a bill would be reported out of committee “soon.”
But this week, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, D-Winthrop, said nothing was coming before the August recess. “I am hopeful that at least during this year that we will have it accomplished,” DeLeo said. “I think both sides are working very hard to come to a place where everyone feels comfortable.”
Baker, a Republican, said Wednesday that he is not bothered by the delay. Baker said he is “completely, utterly and totally confident” that an education reform bill will be passed by the end of the legislative session. The two-year session ends July 31, 2020.
“I think sometimes people don’t give the Legislature enough credit for how difficult it is to change that formula,” Baker said. “There’s a tremendous amount of will in the building to do that, but this is a very hard exercise.”
Baker said lawmakers must achieve a majority vote on the total amount of money to spend, what accountability measures to put in place and how much money individual districts will get compared to one another.
But education advocates say the process is taking too long. Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, D-Boston, a former Education Committee chairwoman who sponsored the Senate version of the education funding bill, said in a statement, “At what point does ‘we’re working on it’ become justice delayed and denied?”
Chang-Diaz said the Senate has passed the recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission multiple times. “The Legislature has had nearly four years to consider the recommendations — that’s half a kid’s elementary school years,” she said. “There’s no good reason that students will go back to school with no foundation funding plan in place.”
Elena Letona, executive director of the community organizing group Neighbor to Neighbor, said in a statement, “If our legislators care about our students as much as they claim, they need to stop delaying. It’s been more than three-and-a-half years since the Legislature’s own commission pointed out that our schools are losing out on more than $1 billion a year due to an outdated funding formula, one that is especially harming low-income students and students of color.”
The fiscal 2020 budget that Baker signed into law Wednesday includes a major increase in education funding — a total of $5.2 billion in Chapter 70 aid, which is nearly $270 million above last year’s funding levels.
Brian LaPierre, director of organization for the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, said he is happy with those funding levels. But, he said, “I equate it to the analogy of a gas tank. We were on fumes, our schools. Now we’re at the halfway point. We’ve got to get to a full tank of gas by the fall.”
LaPierre said he is disappointed that lawmakers are leaving for the August recess without an education funding bill, but he is “cautiously optimistic” lawmakers will take up a bill in September. “As they go out for summer break, we’re putting on the pressure, we’re ramping up our coalition and mobilizing,” he said.
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