Failure of Massachusetts Education Funding Increase Bill Ticks Off Activists

Printed from:

By Katie Lannan and Michael P. Norton

Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo is shrugging off the state Legislature’s unsuccessful attempts to address education funding inequities, but others are using this week’s collapsed talks on Beacon Hill as an election-year rallying call for change.

“No full funding for schools. No #SafeCommunitiesAct. No housing bill. I’ve never seen people so angry at the end of a legislative session. There’s fury out there. Expect there to be political repercussions,” Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone tweeted Wednesday, dropping his comments into the #mapoli hashtag that’s a running resource for political give and take.

Democrats who lead the House and Senate wrapped up formal sessions Tuesday without taking any action on Governor Charlie Baker’s bill to create 135,000 new housing units over the next six years. Legislative negotiators also failed to reach agreement on high-profile bills to stabilize community hospitals and shore up underfunded local education accounts.

In a statement Wednesday, DeLeo said consensus “eluded us” on health care and education bills.

“While certainly frustrating on some levels, the reality is that the legislative process is often incremental and builds off the work done in previous sessions,” said DeLeo, who has been speaker since 2009. “I have no doubt that the work we have done thus far on healthcare and education funding will significantly inform and enhance our ultimate policy decisions next session. It’s better to get complex policy right.”

House leaders also could not come to a consensus within that branch this year on legislation known as the Safe Communities Act, which supporters say is critical to prevent local law enforcement from enhancing the Trump administration’s stepped up enforcement of illegal immigration.

The House and Senate education bills respond to a 2015 report by the Foundation Budget Review Commission, which lawmakers formed to study the school funding formula. The commission found the formula underestimates the cost of education by $1 billion to $2 billion per year by inadequately accounting for expenses associated with health insurance, special education, and teaching low-income students and English language learners.

The Senate bill, which the Massachusetts Teachers Association said would increase state education spending by more than $1 billion annually, would have tasked lawmakers and the Office of Administration and Finance with annually determining their schedule for fulfilling the commission’s recommendations in all four issue areas.

The House bill would have delivered new funding to school districts over five years to help cover special education and health benefit costs, and trigger research on costs associated with educating non-native English speakers and low-income students.

The legislation’s end came six weeks after the state’s high court knocked off the ballot a proposed surtax on incomes over $1 million, eliminating the possibility of a revenue windfall backers had been eyeing to steer more money toward education and transportation.

“I don’t expect that this issue is going to go away,” lead Senate conferee state Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz told the News Service in a midnight interview Tuesday. “People are going to push us to be back at it next year. It’s a damn shame we couldn’t get it done this year, after eight years of grappling with the issue.”

Chang-Diaz, a Democrat of Jamaica Plain, and state Representative Alice Peisch, a Democrat from Wellesley, who led the talks from the House side, each issued statements after the negotiations broke down. The conference committee opened their first meeting by voting to close its talks to the public, and lawmakers typically decline to divulge details of what happens in conference.

Peisch and Chang-Diaz co-chair the Education Committee and led the Foundation Budget Review Commission, but over the course of two legislative sessions have not reached common ground on implementing its recommendations.

Chang-Diaz said the Senate “offered multiple versions of major concessions — on structure, on content, on money.”

“I have only good things to say about the House conferees, who I believe really wanted to get a deal,” she said. “Yet, in the end House leadership rejected all our offers, moved the goal posts, and then killed the bill completely — stunningly, by rejecting one of their own proposals. I’ve seen a lot in my 10 years in this building, but I’ve never seen so many rationalizations and double-standards employed to avoid doing what’s right for kids.”

Peisch and fellow House conferees state Representatives Claire Cronin (D-Easton) and Kimberly Ferguson (R-Holden) said in their statement that the panel was unable to reach compromise after “an incredible amount of work and good faith negotiations by both parties.”

“Throughout the conference committee process, negotiations were complicated by new information obtained from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the exceptionally complex nature of recalculating various increments to the formula as we traded proposals,” the statement said, adding that the education department cautioned that “technical and policy matters” discussed in conference were “well beyond the level of detail included in the current bills.”

The representatives said the House “will continue to close the employee healthcare funding gap and address growing costs of providing special education services” and is “dedicated to ensuring that additional funding in the FY20 budget to support our ELL and low-income students is based on careful analysis that will ensure funding is directed to support the schools, classrooms and students who need it the most.”

Governor Charlie Baker, asked Wednesday about the issue, also pointed to next year’s budget.

“The funding formula as it’s currently structured does provide additional funding to low-income communities,” he said. “We’ve put over $500 million in new money, state money, into schools over the past several years. They’re funded at the highest level ever, but there’s more work to do there and if we’re fortunate enough to be here in January, the next budget we’re going to file is going to put more money into the schools that were primarily of concern in that debate.”

Reaction to the failure to pass a foundation budget bill was swift and strong, as teachers and education advocates blasted the Legislature and pledged to keep the issue on lawmakers’ radar through this fall’s elections and into the next session.

“Reelect people who don’t follow through on our needed funding? NO,” American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts President Beth Kontos wrote on Twitter, tagging House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Governor Charlie Baker. In an earlier tweet, Kontos encouraged parents to “get on the phones” and “Tell elected officials that you are VERY UNHAPPY about the underfunding of our public schools.”

The Massachusetts Teachers Association described its 110,000 members as “angry but resolute.”

“We will organize and join forces with the public school supporters in our communities to take up this fight and stay the course until the needs of every student in Massachusetts are met,” MTA President Merrie Najimy and Vice President Max Page said in a statement.

The Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance, whose members flooded State House telephone lines and visited Beacon Hill repeatedly this session — in one instance carrying packets of student letters detailing the effects of tight school budgets and in another dressed in ’90s fashion to highlight the age of the current funding formula — plans to return to the building when the new session starts in January.

In the meantime, Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance executive director Charlotte Kelly said, the group will focus on “building power on the ground” to hold lawmakers accountable. Kelly said there’s “tons of outrage” and “loads of folks” have begun reaching out to the group.

“The State House is not going to act until we really push them even harder than we did this year,” she told the News Service.

Though most lawmakers are running uncontested — including DeLeo, Senate President Karen Spilka, Chang-Diaz, and Peisch — Kelly said she expects education will be a “sticking point” in both the September 4 primary and the November 6 general election.

“The legislators need to go back to their districts and explain to their young people, to their teachers, to their parents, to their community members, why their education was put on hold,” she said.

Brandy Fluker-Oakley of the advocacy organization Educators for Excellence-Boston said the breakdown is an “example of what happens when teachers are denied a seat at the table.” She said her group’s membership has been growing over the past several months because teachers want to get more involved in policy.

As the group organizes, Fluker-Oakley said it will focus in part on sharing the experiences of teachers, like paying for classroom supplies out of their own salaries.

“The House seems to be needing more of a nudge in this area,” she said.

Most of the members of Educators for Excellence-Boston are teachers in the Boston Public Schools, Fluker-Oakley said.

One Boston lawmaker — state Representative Chynah Tyler, a Democrat of Roxbury– voiced concerns with the Senate version of the bill, which she said would not give the state’s largest school district the help it needs.

“As the representative of the district shared with the senator who sponsored this bill, I am concerned that several schools in my district that are currently failing our students, including Madison Park Vocational Technical High School, the only technical vocational school in the City of Boston, would not have received the resources for those schools to move beyond the category of failing,” Tyler said in a statement. “The Senate plan would have resulted in spending of hundreds of millions of tax dollars, yet this profound financial commitment would simply not have helped the students of my district. We cannot afford to support a version of the bill which is uncertain on how it will be targeted to help our students.”

As lawmakers regroup around schools funding, the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, one of the groups represented on the Foundation Budget Review Commission, said it would continue to make funding reform a top priority and “insist that increased K-12 education funding must be coupled with reforms that address the many acknowledged shortcomings of the current funding system and our failure to close racial and socio-economic achievement gaps and a widening college and workforce readiness gap.”

The alliance said it will urge lawmakers next session to ensure state funds allocated to needier students are spent on those students, require evaluations of the funds’ effectiveness, and report to the public on spending and its impact on learning.