Massachusetts debates 25-year-old education funding formula

BOSTON (AP) — Massachusetts lawmakers are in the middle of a debate about how best to increase spending on local school districts.

At the heart of the discussion is the state’s 25-year-old education funding formula — known as the “foundation budget” — which was a key element of the landmark 1993 Massachusetts education reform law.

The formula was meant to help determine how much schools should spend educating students, and how much the state should kick in. The goal was to help smooth out some of the educational disparities between wealthier communities and poorer ones.

For years, critics have argued the formula has become increasingly outdated and hasn’t fully lived up to its promise of closing the student achievement gap.

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Three years ago, a report by the Foundation Budget Review Commission — a state commission set up to study the issue — found the original formula underestimated those costs by up to $2 billion every year. The report made a series of recommendation to overhaul and update the foundation budget.

Coming up with legislation to address those recommendation has proven tricky.

On Wednesday, the Massachusetts House unanimously approved a bill that would spend about $500 million over five years to help school districts better cover the costs of special education and employee health care.

What the House bill didn’t do is set aside funding for two other key elements of the foundation budget report: increasing funding for schools teaching English language learners and schools with low-income students.

The House bill instead calls for more information, including the hiring of a research consultant by the state education commissioner to figure out how much should be spent on those two groups of students.

Democratic leaders in the House argued that the recommendations in the foundation budget report were more specific when it came to special education and health benefits than English language learning students and low-income students.

Rep. Alice Peisch, the House co-chair of the Foundation Budget Review Commission, said the additional information will help lawmakers decide what the next steps should be.

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The Wellesley Democrat said House lawmakers understand the urgency of the issue and expect the consultant’s report by December so any spending on the items can be taken into account in the state budget for the next fiscal year that begins July 1, 2019.

The House bill is at odds with the version of the bill already approved by the Senate, which seeks to address all four items.

Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, the Senate chair of the Foundation Budget Review Commission, said students have been waiting long enough.

“We have studied this issue rigorously — and we’ve already had the answers for three years,” the Boston Democrat said in a statement after the House vote. “How long should poor children have to wait while we continue ‘studying,’ rather than simply giving them the resources they need to learn?”

Charlotte Kelly of the advocacy group Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance said the only way to move forward is for any final version of the bill to include action on helping English-language learners and poorer students.

“Without those key provisions, we are telling low-income and ELL students that funding their education is not an urgent priority” Kelley said. The group held a rally on the Statehouse steps on Thursday.

The two bills are likely headed to a six-member House and Senate conference committee aimed at hammering out a single compromise version of the legislation to ship to Republican Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk.

The clock is ticking. Any final action by House and Senate lawmakers needs to happen before the end of the Legislature’s formal session on July 31.