Statehouse Hearing Highlights Education Funding Fight

State officials and legislative leaders sounded an optimistic tone Friday that a long-sought overhaul of the education funding formula to help Massachusetts' neediest children was close on the horizon. Yet there was still no immediate indication that a consensus, which has eluded the political establishment for years, was closer to realization. 

Mayors, educators, parents and students jammed a Statehouse auditorium for a public hearing on education spending proposals. Several New England Patriots players brought star power to the daylong event, urging the Legislature's Education Committee to direct more money to vital school programs. 

A 2015 report from a special commission determined that the school spending formula created under a landmark 1993 education reform law had become outdated and was underfunding school districts by $1 billion to $2 billion annually. Bearing the brunt of that shortfall were low-income, minority and immigrant students, widening gulfs in academic performance between students from wealthier communities and many of their less-advantaged urban counterparts. 

Despite broad agreement that a revamp of the formula was needed, negotiations between the House and Senate collapsed in the closing hours of the legislative session last year. The issue quickly re-emerged when the new session opened in January.

Republican Gov. Charlie Baker told lawmakers the 1993 law had, in fact, played a vital role in Massachusetts students attaining some of the highest overall test scores in the nation.

"Unfortunately, this success has not been shared by all communities and all students at an equal pace," Baker said. ``In many communities, we see persistent achievement gaps and missed opportunities for our kids, especially in urban schools with high concentrations of low-income students and English language learners." 

Baker appealed for passage of a bill he filed to address key concerns about the formula, including that it failed to properly factor in costs for special education and students learning to speak English, and for increases in health care costs for school districts. 

The bill would provide $1.1 billion in additional education funding split between the state and local communities over the next seven years, ``and we can do it without raising taxes,'' the governor said. The administration has emphasized that educational disparities won't be solved simply through additional spending, and that more accountability is needed for failing school districts. 

Many advocates who contend Baker's proposal would provide too little state funding and take too long a period to implement have lined up behind a competing measure filed by a group of liberal Democratic legislators.

"Everyone knows money alone won't do it, but we also know that you can't do it without money," said Boston Democrat Sonia Chang-Diaz, the bill's chief Senate sponsor.

Rep. Aaron Vega, a Holyoke Democrat who is leading the House efforts on the bill, said that the measure was roughly 70 percent the same as Baker's legislation, but that the 30 percent where they differ is where most of the money is concentrated.

Under questioning by committee Democrats, state Education Secretary James Peyser said the administration's funding proposal a starting point that was not "chiseled in stone."

While the Democrats' proposal specifies neither a funding amount not timetable for implementation, backers strongly suggest that the state alone must contribute more than $1 billion and that changes to the formula must happen sooner to assure current students benefit.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, noting that 86 percent of the city's public school students were minorities and that many face poverty, language barriers and disabilities, joined other mayors in urging state leaders to put politics aside, "so we can stop pitting city against town, district against charter, legislator against legislator, and start meeting all our students' and communities' needs."

Patriots star Devin McCourty told the panel he had visited many Massachusetts schools during his career and was dismayed by the number of black and Latino students reading below grade level. He and teammates Jason McCourty, Duron Harmon and Matthew Slater are members of the Players Coalition, current and former NFL players promoting social justice issues.

"Our goal today is to lend our voices to thousands of children, in particular impoverished children of color, who need all of our help," Slater said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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