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Lawmakers unveil $1.5 billion education bill

By Katie Lannan
State House News Service

BOSTON – Massachusetts would invest a new $1.5 billion in its public education system over the next seven years under a long-awaited consensus school finance reform bill that House and Senate leaders rolled out Thursday and expect to hit the Senate floor in two weeks.

State Rep. Alice Pesich and state Sen. Jason Lewis, the co-chairs of the Education Committee that has been working for months to develop the legislation, said a focus of the bill is providing resources tolow-income students.

“I think it’s fair to say that if this bill passes into law, we will have the strongest and most progressive education funding system in terms of how we reflect the needs of low-income students,” Lewis, a Winchester Democrat, said. “However, we realize that even with all those changes in the increased Chapter 70 aid that districts will receive, that there’s more that we can and must do to support the needs of all school districts and all students across the state, whether they are in rural districts, suburban districts, Gateway Cities or others.”

The bill, dubbed the Student Opportunity Act and unanimously endorsed by the Education Committee Thursday, would increase Chapter 70 aid to local schools by $1.4 billion, and House Speaker Robert DeLeo said it does not involve plans for additional taxes.

All students in the state will see some benefit from the bill, Peisch said, though the school funding formula has always been intended to give more state aid to districts with greater need.

Locally, state Sen. Eric Lesser praised the spending bill as an acknowledgment of the need to invest in education.

“Massachusetts has one of the best school systems in the nation, but that doesn’t happen by accident. We need to keep investing in our students and prepare them for the challenges ahead. This is an important bill that helps rectify many of our funding shortfalls, and eliminate the inequity we see across school districts. In Longmeadow, we have seen the value of a first-rate school system, and this bill will allow us to continue to give our children the education they deserve. We are hopeful it will reach the governor’s desk for a signature.”

State Rep. Brian Ashe, viewed the bill as progress, however, he also indicated it still leaves some areas underfunded.

“I would like to thank my colleagues from the House and Senate who have worked tirelessly on this bill. It is clear that voices were heard in terms of areas to address such as special education and employee health care costs. While this legislation is a great step forward, I feel we must continue to address the funding for rural and suburban districts in Chapter 70 aid,” he said.

The bill uses Group Insurance Commission data to estimate districts’ employee and retiree health care costs; increases special education enrollment and cost assumptions; increases funding for English language learners and differentiates that money by grade level, with more for older students; and provides additional money based on the percentage of low-income students in a district. It also returns to an older definition of low-income students that was used in past years: 185 percent of the federal poverty level.

On Nov. 2, 2015, a state commission reported that the current starting point in the school funding formula, known as the foundation budget, underestimates the cost of education by an annual $1 billion by inadequately accounting for expenses associated with low-income students, English learners, special education and employee health benefits.

This is not the first time since the report’s release — more than 1,400 days ago — that lawmakers have attempted to overhaul the formula. In each of the last two legislative sessions, House and Senate Democrats have been unable to agree on an approach to school finance reform.

Over that time, Gov. Charlie Baker and lawmakers have increased the amount of Chapter 70 school aid in the annual state budget, at times describing the boosts as down-payments on future reforms.

Last year, after both branches had passed different bills, negotiations to reconcile them collapsed when the two sides were still too far apart in the final minutes of formal sessions.

Pressure has been mounting since then for lawmakers to act, with regular rallies and demonstrations at the State House, one lawsuit filed and another potential one floated, and Baker, municipal officials, teachers unions, business groups, New England Patriots players and others declaring their preferred approach.

“I think this session, with the strong support of our leadership and all of the committee members, we have finally come to a consensus on a bill that as the Senate president and the speaker indicated,will fully implement all of the recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission,” Peisch, a Wellesley Democrat, told reporters at a briefing with Lewis, DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka.

Since a March hearing on the bill, Peisch said she and Lewis participated in “many trips, many meetings to ensure that we had all the information that we needed in order to craft what we hope is a bill that really addresses all of the problems that we were intending to.”

In addition to its funding changes, the bill establishes a commission to investigate the challenges facing rural schools and tasks state officials with analyzing the ways local contributions are determined in the chapter 70 formula.

It creates a “21st Century Education Trust Fund” to support schools and districts pursuing innovative approaches to learning, increases the Massachusetts School Building Authority’s annual spending cap to allow more school construction projects into the pipeline, sets up a three-year timeline to fully fund charter school tuition reimbursements, and expands a special education reimbursement program known as the circuit breaker to include transportation costs.

School districts would be required, under the bill, to set targets for closing persistent achievement gaps and make plans publicly available on how they will spend the money targeted for English learners and low-income students, Lewis said.

The bill will go first to the Senate, and Lewis said a vote is tentatively planned to take place in two weeks after vetting by the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

Longmeadow News Editor Chris Maza contributed to this report.