Monday, November 2, 2015
Top Baker Administration Official Supports Changes to Education Funding Formula

BOSTON-Massachusetts Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Mitchell Chester said Monday that he supports calls for the state to spend more money on school health care costs and special education.

Chester noted that the costs to provide those services "are currently out of whack" with what the state is allocating for them, and said it "makes a whole lot of sense to me" to look at revisiting the school funding formula in those two areas.

But although Chester is the top state official overseeing elementary and secondary education, he would not say whether Gov. Charlie Baker's administration will get behind the recommendations of a new report – which would cost at least an additional $568 million a year from the state and municipalities.

"I'm not speaking on behalf of the administration. I don't know the answer to that," Chester said, when asked if Baker's administration would support the recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission.

The report, released Monday, was the result of the first commission in 14 years to take a comprehensive look at a state education funding formula, which has not changed substantially since it was created in 1993. As The Republican/MassLive.com reported, the report found that the state has been substantially underfunding costs of employee health care and special education. Updating those parts of the formula would cost around $568 million a year.

The report also recommended making additional changes to the formula to put more money toward helping English language learners and providing services to low-income students.

The question now becomes whether the Legislature will take up the proposal and whether Baker will support it.

Baker, heading into a meeting with Republican lawmakers an hour after the commission released the report, said he had not yet seen the report.

Baker spokeswoman Lizzy Guyton was noncommittal. "The Baker Administration thanks the co-chairs and the Commission for their efforts and will carefully review this report," Guyton said. "The administration was proud to increase local school aid for cities and towns by $111 million in this year's budget and looks forward to working with the legislature to put the work of the Commission in the context of our education program from birth through higher education."

Chester said he wants to make sure that existing money for low-income students and English language learners is being spent "wisely" and that the state tracks how money is being spent. Once money is given to a district, the district can use it however it wants. "What's unclear are whether or not those dollars actually reach the students they're intended to serve or not," Chester said.

Chester said there is "very little relationship" between total district spending and academic attainment. "When we go to taxpayers and ask them to increase their investment in the commonwealth's K-12 system, we need to be able to say to them that we're doing the best that we can with the dollars that we have," Chester said. "I'm interested not simply in asking for more and calling for greater investment. I'm particularly interested in the recommendations in the report about effective and efficient use of funds."

"You can't flip a switch and go from today's number to the full amount we recommend in the report."

Baker has said repeatedly that he does not want to raise taxes. The commission did not make any recommendations about where the state should get the additional money, which the report pegged at $432 million from the state and $137 million from cities and towns.

State Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, D-Boston, who co-chaired the Foundation Budget Review Commission and also co-chairs the Legislature's Joint Committee on Education, said she recognizes that it "won't be an easy walk" to convince lawmakers to spend so much additional money.

But she pointed out there were 68 co-sponsors, including Republicans and Democrats, on the legislation that created the commission. She said lawmakers have recognized that education funding is inadequate in their districts. "This really is an issue where folks have been seeing warning signs accumulating and accumulating in their home districts across the state," Chang-Diaz said. "I'm hopeful the Legislature will act, because the Legislature asked us to come together and give them a shared diagnosis and road map."

Chang-Diaz said commission members anticipate that any formula change will be phased in. "You can't flip a switch and go from today's number to the full amount we recommend in the report," Chang-Diaz said.

The task force included a wide range of voices, including representatives of state education agencies, political leaders, municipalities, school committees, school superintendents, teachers' unions and education-related associations. Advisory members included representatives of education advocacy, business and taxpayer groups. The broad range of involvement in developing the recommendations could be instrumental in pushing lawmakers and the public to support change.

Asked whether local school districts can afford to spend more money, Attleboro Mayor Kevin Dumas, immediate past president of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, pointed out that many districts in Massachusetts already spend more than the minimum amount required of them.

Patrick Francomano, president of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, added, "All of our cities and towns have a passion for education and a passion for the children of their districts and recognize what they spend as an investment."

Chelsea School Superintendent Mary Bourque, who represented the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents on the committee, cited a "moral imperative" to fully fund education. Bourque said in Chelsea, employee benefit costs are $6.7 million more than the funding allocated in the foundation budget. "That's $6.7 million I must divert from the educational interventions my students need," she said.

State Rep. Alice Peisch, D-Wellesley, who with Chang-Diaz chaired the task force and the Legislature's Joint Committee on Education, noted that the districts that would be most impacted by an increased foundation budget are those that are currently spending at the foundation budget – typically poorer communities. Communities are allowed to raise extra money to fund their schools so most wealthier communities spend more than they are required to by the state.

Several committee members stressed the importance of closing the achievement gap – ensuring that poor students do not continue to fall behind wealthier students.

"When we say we need to provide a quality education to all students, we mean all," Chang-Diaz said. "Many students are still waiting for that promise to be fulfilled."

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