A coalition of lawmakers, advocacy groups, teachers and parents are coming to the State House on Wednesday to jumpstart the conversation around education reform.
The wide-ranging group hopes to get the ball rolling early to modernize the Chapter 70 formula that funds the state's public schools. And ahead of the press conference, state Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz plans to file an education funding bill today or tomorrow called the PROMISE Act that will carry on the effort to reform the Chapter 70 formula that died at the end of formal session last summer.
"Every year that we wait as a legislature to act on a highly-vetted, highly-researched, highly-debated road map that this bipartisan group of experts has given us, is a year that students can't get back," Chang-Díaz told me in a recent interview.
The PROMISE Act would implement recommendations from a 2015 Foundation Budget Review Commission report, which found the state's public schools are underfunded by around $1 billion per year. The bill deals with funding in four areas: health care, special education, low-income students and English language learners. Chang-Díaz is the lead Senate sponsor of the bill. In the House, Holyoke state Rep. Aaron Vega and Worcester state Rep. Mary Keefe will be the lead sponsors, she said.
"It's crucial that the PROMISE Act be passed in 2019, that we get the job done in 2019 and not fall into the same pitfall of last session of leaving it until the last minute," Chang-Díaz said. "And it's crucial that it includes all four of the finance reform provisions of the review commission — including and especially the equity provisions." Failure to come to agreement on how to address those last two provisions was part of what sank the bill last session.
The new bill is largely similar to last session's legislation, she said, but adds a few tweaks around how the state counts low-income students and a provision that affirms schools get at least their minimum proportion of state aid. The full name is "An Act Providing Rightful Opportunities and Meaningful Investment for Successful and Equitable Education."
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse will attend Wednesday's press conference at 11 a.m. in Room 428, as will members of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, Boston's NAACP chapter, members of the Foundation Budget Review Commission, public school teachers, parents and students, and a number of other groups.
And there's plenty of Chapter 70 buzz. Education funding reform was central to the conversation last week as Gov. Charlie Baker, Senate President Karen Spilka and House Speaker Robert DeLeo were sworn in as Beacon Hill's "Big Three" leaders. In his inaugural address, Baker said he'll offer plans to revamp the school funding formula when he unveils his budget proposal later this month.
"I'm delighted the governor is joining the table," Chang-Díaz said. "I hope he will do that in a way that's highly transparent and file it as standalone legislation rather than sort of buried within a budget proposal that deals with a thousand other things."
In Spilka’s opening speech, which touched on education, the Senate leader insisted the time for incremental change is over. DeLeo also agreed education funding reform is on his radar heading into the 191st General Court.
So the big question is how lawmakers will try to do it — and when. But Chang-Díaz says she's hoping the Legislature can build on work from last session and get something on Baker's desk before 2020, especially in the face of increased political pressure from inside and outside the State House.
"We're not at the end of session. We're at the beginning of session. We don't have to start from scratch. There's no reason we can't pick up where we left off, which was pretty darn close to the finish line," Chang-Díaz said.
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