The House gave initial approval Tuesday to legislation that would deliver roughly $500 million, and possibly more, in additional aid to cities and towns by 2023 to pay for special education and the cost of school district employee and retiree health benefits.
The bill represents the House’s response to an education bill passed by the Senate in May that proposed a different approach to fulfilling recommendations of a special commission that found public education in Massachusetts to be underfunded by $1 billion to $2 billion a year. Consideration of amendments to the bill, and a vote to send it to the Senate could occur as soon as Wednesday when the House meets in one of two more formal sessions on tap this week.
House leaders are proposing to alter the formula used to parse out local aid under Chapter 70 to deliver additional resources for students in need of special education services and to help districts pay for health benefits. The changes would be phased in over five years.
“At the end of the day, the goal of this is to make sure that these kids get what they need so they can be successful academically,” Education Committee Co-chair Rep. Alice Peisch said.
The bill, which was recommended unanimously with one abstention Tuesday by the Ways and Means Committee, would also direct the Department of Education to conduct a study on how the school foundation budget funding formula meets the needs of low-income and English language learner students with the goal of making recommendations to the Legislature on ways to serve those populations.
That the report to the Legislature would be due by the end of this year. Peisch said it would still allow enough time for additional actions to be taken by the Legislature and factored into the fiscal year 2020 budget.
“I think we would be in a better position to ensure we are giving districts with high concentrations of low-income students the resources they need as well as guidance on how to ensure that the money is used for interventions that actually result in improving the education for the students that money is designed to benefit,” Peisch said.
The study will also explore how to best help students who don’t speak English but may enter the public school system at different ages or levels of education and require different interventions, Peisch said.
Warning the House is “leaving out the two most important racial and economic justice provisions addressing funding for English language learners and low-income students,” the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance said it was quickly mobilizing around an amendment sponsored by Rep. Aaron Vega.
“Why is the Legislature comfortable leaving these kids to fight for crumbs for another year? How can the Legislature ask English language learners and low-income students to stand at the back of the line any longer?” the alliance said in an email Tuesday. “We are demanding the Legislature step up and commit itself to racial and economic justice. If the Legislature wants to update the Foundation Budget, then they need to do the real thing.”
Under the bill, the amount of additional funding for local school districts will ultimately depend on enrollment. If additional changes to the formula are made to fund services for low-income and English learner students, the total cost of the reform would be expected to rise above $500 million by year five.
The Senate in May passed a bill that would have pushed Massachusetts to begin implementing the recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission starting next year in all four areas, including special education, ELL, low-income and health care.
That bill calls for state lawmakers and the Executive Office of Administration and Finance to annually determine an implementation schedule after a public hearing with testimony from education stakeholders. The process would be similar to that used to decide how much tax revenue the state should assume as it builds a budget for the next year.
Under the Senate 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.
Peisch said House leaders reviewed the Senate bill but felt it added “an extra step.”
“We know what we need for health care and special education and we felt it was important to make the commitment to doing that,” Peisch said.
While it remains to be seen whether the House and Senate will be able to agree to an approach to education funding reform by July 31, Peisch said that by laying out a schedule lawmakers can begin to build a case for why additional revenues might be necessary.
“Unlike when the Senate bill was passed, we now know there will not be a ballot question that has the potential for providing additional revenues. I think that changes the landscape with respect to what we need to do to make the case for the kinds of revenue we need to ensure all of our students are well served,” Peisch said.
The Supreme Judicial Court last month knocked down as unconstitutional a proposed ballot question that would have levied a surtax on income exceeding $1 million and generated up to $2 billion in new revenue that was earmarked under the proposal for education and transportation.
Paul Reville, the state’s former education secretary under Gov. Deval Patrick and a member of the Foundation Budget Review Commission, said he was encouraged to see the House express a willingness to tackle the funding issue, but concerned that the bill would push off a decision on changes for ELL and low-income students.
“I applaud the House for doing something significant on this, particularly in the face of the millionaire’s tax being moved off the ballot; This takes some gumption,” Reville said, before adding that the bill still didn’t “completely fulfill” the commission’s recommendations.
“I worry about a strategy that postpones a reckoning on ELL students and low-income students,” Reville said. “The notion of kicking this down the road when it would have to be enacted in some separate bill frankly frightens me.”