BOSTON — The House voted 143-0 Wednesday to approve a bill providing roughly $500 million to school districts over five years to help cover a greater share of the costs associated with special education and the health benefits for employees and retirees.
The bill does not include measures to address underfunded local costs tied to educating English language learners and low-income students, but legislation supporters say those issues may be addressed after a report is filed in December.
Rep. Alice Peisch, the House chairwoman of the Education Committee, said the bill would trigger research that could inform education levels in next year’s budget associated with non-native English speakers and low-income students.
The House and Senate have taken different tacks for meeting the local education funding needs identified by the Foundation Budget Review Commission, which undertook an extensive examination and found public education is underfunded by $1 billion to $2 billion annually.
Legislators have less than three weeks to reach agreement on a consensus House-Senate approach on education funding.
Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, the Senate co-chair of the Education Committee, said the House bill falls short of fully addressing the achievement gap affecting minority and low-income students.
“Let’s remember that we created the Foundation Budget 25 years ago precisely because of the stunning achievement and opportunity gaps we had. Those gaps have not narrowed in the quarter century since. Yet, the House bill abandons the Commission’s recommendations that would target these gaps, opting for yet another study,” Chang-Diaz said.
She said, “We have studied this issue rigorously — and we’ve already had the answers for 3 years. Those answers were additionally approved unanimously by the Education Committee and by 100 percent of the Senate, including all of the members of the Republican Party. How long should poor children have to wait while we continue ‘studying,’ rather than simply giving them the resources they need to learn?”
Rep. Aaron Vega filed an amendment that would have addressed education funding for low-income students and those learning English, but withdrew that proposal in a move that avoided a floor fight. The Holyoke Democrat said he was okay with waiting for the report from the Department of Education due in December to help inform possible next steps.
Peisch said the Foundation Budget Review Commissions recommendations were far more specific in how to address special education and health benefits than low-income and non-native English speaking student populations. “We need to know how much money we need in order to do this,” Peisch said.
The House did adopt an amendment offered by leadership clarifying the mandate for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to not just produce a study with recommendations by the end of the year, but to specifically “develop an implementation plan for purposes of informing the FY 2020 budget.”
“It communicates quite clearly the sense of urgency we share about the need to implement the commission’s findings and recommendations,” Peisch told the News Service, indicating that she and others in leadership had heard concerns from members and others that the original language “made it look like we were kicking the can down the road.”
The leadership amendment also specified that the study and report should look at how to address the school district that were harmed by the 2016 change to the way the state classified low-income students.
In the run-up to the House debate on Wednesday, the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance tried to rally support around the Vega amendment. The group said the House bill “leaves behind thousands of English language learners and low-income students.”
“The only way to remedy the situation is to bring the bills urgently to a conference committee where the House and Senate must agree to reinsert the ELL and low-income recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission,” Charlotte Kelly, executive director of the alliance, said in a statement after the vote. “Without those key provisions, we are telling low-income and ELL students that funding their education is not an urgent priority.”
The Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education said it looked forward to working with legislators and the Department of Education to implement a new funding formula for low-income and ELL students in “evidence-based increments.”
“The bill is a positive first step toward coupling increased K-12 education funding with reforms that help ensure that state funds allocated for needier students are actually spent on those students, and that districts evaluate and publicly report how funds are being used effectively to improve educational opportunities and results for all students,” MBAE Executive Director Linda Noonan said. “Increased funding must do more than provide relief for cash-strapped districts, it must also be structured to address the many acknowledged shortcomings of the current funding system that contribute to our failure to close racial and socio-economic achievement gaps and a widening college and workforce readiness gap.”