Mass. Officials Aim to Steer Funds, Tools to School Districts in Need
MALDEN -- Four months after talks on education funding reform collapsed, education officials are preparing for another effort in the new legislative session that begins in January and in the meantime looking to steer new funding and tools to needy school districts in next year’s budget.
Legislative negotiators failed to reach consensus on a high-profile bill to revise the state’s school funding formula by the end of formal sessions in July, leaving unresolved for another year an issue that educators, parents and students have been advocating around since a 2015 report found the current formula underestimates the cost of education by $1 billion to $2 billion per year.
“I do think it can be done. I think it probably will be done this session,” Education Secretary James Peyser told the News Service last week, referring to the new term that begins in January. “The discussions at the end of session last year would not have affected this current fiscal year, so in many respects, we haven’t lost any time as a result, so I think it’s going to be fine to get back to work in January.”
The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, at a meeting Tuesday, voted to send Peyser a memo outlining its members’ priorities for next year’s state budget. Budget writers plan a Dec. 5 hearing where economic experts will provide their revenue outlooks for the next fiscal year, and budget deliberations will begin officially in January, when Gov. Charlie Baker is scheduled to file his fiscal 2020 spending plan.
Jeff Wulfson, deputy commissioner of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, told the board that lawmakers this summer “did a lot of great work” on funding reform.
“We’re picking up really where they left off and reviewing that work, and having a lot of internal discussions with a goal toward presenting a number of ideas for the governor to consider in his House 1 budget proposal,” Wulfson said.
Wulfson said there has been “a lot of interest in the field in moving forward even more rapidly than we have in the last couple years with the recommendations of the 2015 Foundation Budget Review Commission.”
The commission found the school funding formula inadequately accounts for expenses associated with health insurance, special education and teaching low-income students and English language learners.
The House and the Senate this session each passed bills that took different approaches to implementing the commission’s recommendations. In the last two state budgets, Baker proposed and lawmakers agreed to new funding aimed at addressing the recommendations around health care costs.
“We’ll be looking at that and looking at other recommendations from both the commission and from other sources to see how we can improve the formula to ensure greater equity and ensure that the lowest-performing districts, the highest-need districts, are getting the resources they need in a sustainable way over time,” Peyser said.
Peyser said state officials would be “trying to do the things in the budget and through policy that are ensuring we’re getting the biggest bang for our buck and that, importantly, our students are getting the outcomes they need and deserve.”
The board is asking for a $5 million increase in targeted assistance funding used to support students “in districts that are lagging and where investment can be leveraged with local and third party resources to close achievement gaps.”
Katherine Craven, who chairs the board’s budget committee, said the recommendations placed an “emphasis” on targeted assistance. Wulfson said they place “a focus on the need for a significant part of any new education dollars to be targeted for those districts where the achievement gap is one of greatest urgency.”
He said different types of districts have different needs, from those in municipalities that are well-off and have been able to spend more local dollars on their schools, to those with high-needs student populations and strained municipal finances, to smaller, rural districts with declining enrollment.
The board also recommended that the education aid accounts in next year’s budget “be funded at the highest level possible based on available revenues.”
Craven said the panel took a more generalized approach to its suggestions. “Asking for specific dollars a lot of times is good, but it’s not met with any kind of reality, and I think in this case, we’re sort of getting at the big items that the board has consistently stood up for,” she said.
Those items include support for students learning English, a science, technology, engineering and math initiative, civics education, and the state’s new assessment program, according to Craven, the chief administrative officer at Babson College.
The Massachusetts Legislature since 2016 had eyed a proposed surtax on incomes over $1 million as a source of new revenue for education but the state’s high court found the ballot question on the tax to be unconstitutionally drafted and it did not go before voters in November. Lawmakers plan to make another run with a redrafted amendment but such a proposal would not be able to reach the statewide ballot until 2022 at the earliest.
Tax revenues have been pouring in at levels above official state estimates for months, enabling the state to bulk up its rainy day fund and spend surplus dollars. It’s unclear how long the revenue surge will last and how it might play into perennial efforts by some lawmakers to raise taxes to make investments in education.
Wulfson said education officials are aware that school funding accounts “comprise a very large portion of the state budget” and drew laughs with a quip about the legal, taxed marijuana sales that began Tuesday at stores in Northampton and Leicester.
“Even though we’re expecting a major influx of new revenues beginning this morning out in Leicester and Northampton -- I encourage everybody to do their share in raising state revenues -- we’re very much in conversation with the Executive Office of Administration and Finance to figure out how these asks can fit into the state budget,” he said