Monday, November 2, 2015
Ambitious school funding plan faces significant roadblocks

A bipartisan commission of lawmakers and educators recommended hundreds of millions of dollars in new spending on the state’s K-12 education system Monday, unveiling one of the most ambitious school finance blueprints in a generation.

The plan, which could cost a half-billion dollars or more per year, faces substantial fiscal and political hurdles. But proponents framed it as a vital response to years of school budget cuts and persistent academic achievement gaps separating wealthy from poor students and whites from blacks and Latinos.

“Until now, there has been a vague agreement that there is a problem, but not about the scope of it or about what to do about it,” said state Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat who cochaired the commission, at a news conference Monday. “Today, that is different. Today, that changes.”

Lawmakers who served on the Foundation Budget Review Commission, however, acknowledged that education is one of many competing priorities on Beacon Hill. And finding the money for substantial new spending will be challenging.

Voters have proven to be skittish about tax hikes in recent years. And Governor Charlie Baker, soaring in opinion polls, firmly opposes them.

Baker declined to comment on the commission’s report in detail Monday, saying he had not yet read it. But the governor, who has cast himself as a protector of the fiscal interests of local government, including schools, said, “I certainly believe it’s important for the Commonwealth to be a good partner to our cities and towns.”

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, a Winthrop Democrat, said it would be difficult for the state to ramp up spending by hundreds of millions of dollars in the short term, but he suggested a phase-in over time is a possibility.

The commissioners themselves said a gradual implementation is probably the most realistic course.

Massachusetts schools consistently rank among the best in the nation. And observers say much of the credit goes to the state’s landmark reform legislation of 1993, which married higher standards and accountability with a big infusion of public dollars.

The legislation called for a budget review commission to meet every three years to examine the funding formula laid out in the law and make recommendations for changes. But the state has convened a commission only a handful of times.

The latest iteration met 10 times over the last year and hosted six hearings across the state. Among its central findings: The 1993 formula sharply underestimated the growth of special education and health insurance costs.

The commission recommended at least $431.8 million in new state spending to help make up for the shortfall. “With sufficient funding for these areas,” said state Representative Alice Peisch, a Wellesley Democrat who cochaired the commission, “millions of dollars across the Commonwealth will be freed up to spend on the kinds of things that we know students need.”

Commissioners said the money could go to smaller class sizes, longer school days, and similar initiatives.

Jim Stergios, executive director of the conservative-leaning Pioneer Institute, said the state wouldn’t have to pony up so much if districts did more to contain health care costs. “That’s not taken into consideration in this report whatsoever,” he said.

Additionally, the commission called for about $25 million in new state spending on school districts that serve large numbers of students learning English. And it recommended substantial new dollars for districts confronting high concentrations of poverty.

It did not make specific budgetary or educational proposals for such districts. Instead, it suggested the state give districts enough resources to choose two or three approaches from a menu of promising strategies, ranging from expanded early education to more mental and dental health care for students.

The state’s schools, despite their comparatively strong performance, are still struggling with achievement gaps.

Paul Reville, a Harvard University education professor and former state education secretary who served on the commission, said there is still an “iron-law correlation in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts between socioeconomic status and educational attainment.”

And while Boston is among the top-scoring large cities on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the nation’s report card, the latest test results show large gaps between white students and black and Latino students.

Richard Weir, a spokesman for the Boston Public Schools, praised the commission’s work in a written statement. And given the district’s “high concentration of low-income students and its large percentage of English language learners,” he said, “we are keenly interested in ensuring adequate state support for our diverse student population.”

The commission’s recommendations won the enthusiastic embrace of at least one top Beacon Hill leader. Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat, said the state “absolutely” needs to pour new money into the state’s education system, evoking the education reform of 1993.

“I believe we need another multiyear commitment, as we did with ed reform,” he said. “It worked. We made the commitment. We stuck with it, and we now have the best public education system in America. But we’re not done yet. We have more to do.”

Budgets have been tight in recent years, however, even amid an economic recovery. And Eileen McAnneny, president of the business-backed budget watchdog Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, which had a nonvoting seat on the commission, said spending hundreds of millions of dollars on education would probably mean taking money from other priorities such as public safety and child protection.

Spending was not the sole focus of the commission’s 20-page report. The panel also called for better data collection, pressing for a system that tracks funding directed at low-income and English language learners and another examining spending at the school level.

Linda Noonan, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, which had a seat on the commission, said the recommendations are a good start. But she said the panel could have focused a bit more on efficient use of the more than $16 billion in federal, state, and local funds Massachusetts spends annually on K-12 education.

“That’s a lot of money,” she said, “and we need to know that every dollar is spent wisely.”

David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe.

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