Report sizes up school aid funding increases

Boston Statehouse

(MGNOnline)

BOSTON (SHNS) – The degree of funding boosts for low-income students is a key difference between one pending school finance proposal that would lead to $460 million in additional district funding by fiscal 2026 and another Beacon Hill plan that would result in $1.4 billion, according to a new analysis.

According to the report, from the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, if lawmakers do not make any policy changes to the state’s education funding formula, school districts would receive an additional $988.2 million in school aid by fiscal 2026, compared to this year.

Researchers from the left-leaning MassBudget modeled out the seven-year impact of two bills to overhaul the funding formula, finding that Gov. Charlie Baker’s plan would boost district funding by $1.45 billion, or $459.9 million more than the status quo, and another bill offered by Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, Rep. Aaron Vega and Rep. Mary Keefe would lead to an additional $2.39 billion, or $1.41 billion more than the status quo.

The report is largely silent on new revenue sources to help pay for substantial investments in K-12 education and policy reforms that supporters say are as important as funding in the quest to close achievement gaps.

Nearly four years after the Foundation Budget Review Commission concluded the current formula underestimates the cost of education by $1 billion each year and recommended a series of changes around health care, special education, low-income students and English language learners, consensus on reform has eluded lawmakers.

House-Senate talks on a bill collapsed last summer, and pressure has been building for lawmakers to act, with various groups making their preferences known, periodic State House rallies, and a lawsuit filed last week.

The Education Committee, helmed by Rep. Alice Peisch and Sen. Jason Lewis, has been reviewing proposals and could put forward legislation as early as this month.

In its analysis, MassBudget said the state is facing “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to ensure adequate support for all students,” and that new resources can give communities “greater ability to collaborate and identify the best way to serve their kids, implement new approaches, and reach aspirational goals.”

The report compares how Baker’s bill (H 70) and the bill known as the Promise Act (H 586/S 238) would change the formula for health insurance, special education, English language learners and low-income students and measures both against the status quo.

As of this school year, MassBudget said, the Foundation Budget Review Commission’s recommendations around English language learner funding increases have been nearly two-thirds completed, and the increase of health and benefit rates to match Group Insurance Commission levels has been 30 percent phased in.

The report said extra support for low-income students “accounts for much of the variation in the costs of leading plans for school funding reform.” For low-income students, according to MassBudget, the FBRC “proposed a range of reforms encompassing minor changes all the way to doubling the amount in the formula for each low-income student.”

The report said that Baker’s bill would move the state to a low-income rate between $3,800 and $4,600, with the higher rates for school districts with more low-income students, and an additional $180 available for districts “with the greatest concentrations of disadvantaged kids.”

The Promise Act, meanwhile, would “roughly double the amount of extra funding for the highest poverty schools,” MassBudget said. It proposes an extra amount of money for each low-income student equal to 50 percent of typical funding for districts with the fewest low-income students, and equal to 100 percent for those with the highest concentrations.

“Quantitative research has found that reaching equal achievement benchmarks with students in poverty compared to affluent peers would clearly take 100 percent or more incremental funding,” the report said. “In addition, evaluations looking at the specific array of approaches capable of closing achievement gaps” such as a combination of pre- kindergarten, after-school, summer, and wraparound health programs would cost well over 100 percent of the typical funding each student receives.”

Chang-Diaz, in an interview, said the report shows that what the different bills “proposed to do with respect to achievement gap closure is basically the ballgame.”

“The question is not what is politically comfortable for politicians and budget writers this year,” she said. “The question is what is it actually going to take to close achievement gaps.”

A Jamaica Plain Democrat who co-chaired the Foundation Budget Review Commission, Chang-Diaz said there is “broad agreement” among policymakers for a tiered system that recognizes the difference in costs between educating a poor student in a mixed-income or more affluent community and one who lives “in a sea of poverty.”

“But how steep is the slope is where this big disagreement comes in,” she said.

The Executive Office of Education is reviewing the report, according to a spokeswoman, who said Baker has signed budgets increasing state support for K-12 education by more than $500 million over the past four years.

“Unlike other plans, the Governor’s education funding plan is very specific about factors used to increase funding for low-income students, special education, English Language Learners, and how many years it will take to fully implement each of these increases,” Colleen Quinn, the spokeswoman, said in a statement. “The Governor’s plan is funded with existing revenues, with investments beginning immediately and can be sustained over time.”

Baker’s bill would also increase funding for school counselors and early college and career programs.

MassBudget said it could not project the fiscal impact of a third prominent proposal, filed by Education Committee Vice Chair Rep. Paul Tucker, because of a “lack of clarity on a central component of the formula.”

Tucker’s bill (H 576), which calls for a five-year implementation timeline, does not set a specific amount for additional support for low-income students, according to MassBudget. The bill sets a minimum of an additional 50 percent of typical spending for low-income students in the most affluent districts and directs state education officials to determine amounts for more disadvantaged districts, the report said.

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