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Bill would boost aid to schools with needed formula revamp

Senators look to modernize foundation budget formula

Jule Pattison-Gordon

In November 2015, state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz and other members of the Foundation Budget Review Commission, a panel comprising legislators, state administrators, educators and business leaders, announced that public schools are underfunded by $1 billion to $2 billion. The state’s system formula for calculating a minimally adequate school budget has not been updated in decades and falls short of the current fiscal reality, they said.

Now the state Senate is ready to act.

Chang-Diaz says she plans to file a bill this month that would take up the Foundation Budget Review Commission’s recommendations. This is not the first such push: Last session, the Senate twice passed legislation containing the proposals, which were not implemented.

Now that Question 2 and issues regarding charter school caps no longer dominate educational policy discussions, attention has turned to legislative options for closing opportunity gaps.

“There’s been a focus almost exclusively on Question 2,” Chang-Diaz said. With the matter resolved, “it clears space on the legislative docket to take up other education policy issues,” she said.

Chang-Diaz told the Banner that this latest bill would implement nearly all the FBRC recommendations, which include using a more accurate method to calculate employee health care costs and increasing funding allotments for the education of English language learners, special education students and low-income students.

Another advantage of timing, according to Peter Wilson, press secretary for state Senate President Stan Rosenberg, is that the Fair Share Act is expected to pass next year. If implemented, that act would increase the tax rate on millionaires and generate an estimated $2 billion of additional revenue directed to public education and public transportation purposes.

High hopes

The Senate twice passed such recommendations, indicating they are likely to do so again. A further sign of support: Senate President Rosenberg has pledged to examine shortfalls in the state’s mechanisms for budgeting school aid and make reforms. At present, the nature and shape of these reforms remain unclear, Wilson told the Banner.

Chang-Diaz said the energy for change is not limited to the Senate: the Foundation Budget Review Commission was a bipartisan group that included both House and Senate members. And there has been broad, cross-state support from stakeholders such as parents and school superintendents, as well as economists, she said.

“All the advice we’ve been getting from leading economists is that at the state level, what we need to be doing to steward our economy for the future is to invest in education and infrastructure,” Chang-Diaz said. “Those are at the top of the list for Massachusetts to thrive and grow.”

Mary Battenfeld, member of the Citywide Parent Council and the parent group Quality Education for Every Student, said the defeat of Question 2 sends a strong message that Massachusetts residents want greater investment in traditional public schools.

“The defeat of Question 2 should be strong demonstration to the commonwealth that people want strong public schools, believe in them and want them to be supported,” Battenfeld told the Banner. “That should be a message lawmakers should hear and use to add more money to education and make the foundation budget formula fairer.”

Previous attempts

On two previous occasions, the Senate sought to take up the FBRC’s recommendations.

In March of 2016 senators passed the Restoring Investment in Student Education Act, or RISE Act, a compromise bill that included FBRC proposals. The bill paired a charter cap lift with significantly higher budget assessments for all schools. Both advocates and opponents of charter expansion raised outcry against aspects of the bill, and it stalled in the House. The Senate again tried to implement FBRC recommendations by embedding them in their budget proposal.

Despite the defeats, Chang-Diaz says these prior attempts bode well for the coming session.

“It is a demonstration of appetite that the [foundation budget increase] did pass twice in the Senate,” she told the Banner. “I think many others view that as a positive indicator instead of a negative.”