BOSTON (SHNS) – Twenty-five years after Massachusetts passed its landmark education reform law, the state Senate is poised to take a step Thursday that a chief proponent says will modernize that law to respond to new challenges and lessons learned.
“There are pieces of the promise that we never actually did succeed at delivering on, and it wasn’t for lack of good intention,” Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, co-chair of the Education Committee, told the News Service. “We really made a good try at it, a first good run at it in the initial formula, but we have learned a lot in the intervening 25 years about what it takes to close achievement gaps. It is harder than anyone expected.”
The 1993 education law established a school funding formula including the “foundation budget,” a school district’s required level of spending to deliver an adequate education. The foundation budget is a main factor in determining how much state aid districts receive.
A 2015 report from a Foundation Budget Review Commission, co-chaired by Chang-Diaz and Rep. Alice Peisch, found the current formula underestimates the cost of education by $1 billion to $2 billion per year, driven largely by health care and special education costs.
A bill (S 2506) slated for debate — and likely passage — in Thursday’s Senate session would charge state lawmakers and the Executive Office of Administration and Finance with annually determining an implementation schedule to fulfill the commission’s recommendations, after a public hearing with testimony from education stakeholders. Under the bill, the implementation schedule would be included in a joint resolution and placed before the House and Senate for their consideration by Feb. 15 of each year, along with any legislation needed to implement the schedule.
“We know we can’t phase that in overnight, but if we don’t start, right, if we don’t name the goal, have it clearly in our sights, agree on what the end goal is, we are never going to get there,” Chang-Diaz said.
“You have to name the goal in order to start making steps toward it, and that’s what passing the bill does. It eventually gets us all on the same page about what the end goal is.”
The report also flagged the need for better data collection and said despite great gains in education quality statewide, Massachusetts has yet to close the achievement gap for low-income students and English language learners.
Gov. Charlie Baker’s last two budget proposals have included funding boosts aimed at addressing the commission’s recommendations around health care costs.
Since the report’s release, dozens of school committees, boards of selectmen and city councils have passed resolutions calling for implementation of its recommendation, including Brockton, Lexington, Pittsfield and Sandwich, according to the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.
The bill the Senate plans to take up does not appropriate money. It is an Education Committee redraft of legislation Chang-Diaz filed in January 2017.
Thirty-six other senators — every current member of the body except for Sen. Brendan Crighton, who joined the Senate in March after a special election — signed on to her original bill (S 223) as cosponsors. Sen. Nick Collins, who was sworn in Wednesday, had signed on when he was a member of the House.
The Senate has passed versions of the measure before as components of larger bills, but Thursday’s debate will mark the first time the Senate has tackled the foundation budget in standalone legislation.
Senators have filed eight amendments to the bill.
The idea appears to have picked up steam among House lawmakers. When Rep. Sean Garballey proposed similar language as an amendment to next year’s budget, 88 other lawmakers — a majority in the 160-seat House — signed on as cosponsors. The proposal was ultimately left out of the package of education amendments compiled by House leadership.
“There are certainly big steps to go, but this is a pretty extraordinary moment in the life of the commonwealth over the last decade or so, in that we have never seen consensus like this around an education policy of any kind, of any kind of serious scope,” said Chang-Diaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat who has served in the Senate since 2009. “Parties that typically disagree with each other pretty bitterly are agreeing pretty vociferously on this bill. I’ve never seen that in my time in this building.”