Public Policy Updates: Joint Committee on Education

On Friday, March 22, the Joint Committee on Education held a hearing on education finance bills (note: link has video). The Committee gavelled into session shortly after ten in the morning, and the Committee hearing ended eight and a half hours later. The vast majority of testimony taken during that time centered on reconsideration of the foundation budget. 
In opening the hearing, House Chair Alice Peisch said she would find most useful testimony that centered on the issues surrounding low income students and how the state might be certain additional funding was spent on such students, including the best interventions. Senate Chair Jason Lewis quoted the first Massachusetts Secretary of Education Horace Mann in his Tenth Annual Report to the Massachusetts Board of Education: 

Having no other mines to work, Massachusetts has mined into the human intellect; and, from its limitless resources, she has won more sustaining and enduring prosperity and happiness than if she had been founded on a stratification of silver and gold, reaching deeper down than geology has yet penetrated.

Governor Charles Baker spoke first, advocating for the bill he filed, House Bill 70, An Act to Promote Equity and Excellence in Education. Accompanied by Secretary James Peyser and Commissioner Jeffrey Riley, said he "think[s] we can all agree that the formula needs to reflect current cost realities," he is looking "forward to a robust debate," and he hopes "we can put the right mechanisms in place." In 1993, he said,"The Commonwealth converted the aspirations of the education reform act into reality" through continued shared commitment. While "there is much to be proud of, unfortunately, he said, that "has not been shared by all." He thus submitted his bill which he asserted not only responds to the Foundation Budget Review Commission's recommendations, but also revises the charter school formula, and creates various education trust funds.
Lewis noted that the $1.1B cited by the Governor was in fact a combination of local and state funding, that in fact the state increase would be $500M, still, Lewis noted, a lot of money, but not the between $1B and $2B in additional state aid called for by the Foundation Budget Review Commission. Baker responded that if the state were to increase aid that far, he would want to see additional accountability measures put into place. 
Rep. Bud Williams of Springfield said that the funding doesn't go far enough, that "it's pay now or pay later." Baker segued to the Springfield Empowerment Zone and his view of its success; Williams asked for the data supporting that, and Baker spoke of his view of the teacher support for the zone. 
Upon Governor Baker's leaving, Secretary James Peyser presented his arguments for the bill. He noted that it would return the state to the prior charter reimbursement cycle of 100/60/40, and it "concentrates reimbursement on sustained charter school growth...will increase reimbursements in the near term and make the state a more predicable partner." Only districts with "sustained charter growth" over multiple years would receive tuition reimbursement. Districts spending over 9% of foundation on charters would also be guaranteed a certain level of state aid to the public school district. The bill would also give the Commissioner new and additional authority on turnaround plans.  The Commissioner himself did not speak to that, but noted that the state has flatlined in NAEP and "other states are catching up" thus he needed the authorities presented in the bill. He said "investing in our children will pay dividends in the future."

 Rep. Andy Vargas of Haverhill spoke of the lack of inclusion of inflation in the adminstration's calculation of additional funding; adjusting for inflation, he said, the $200M of the first year becomes more like $75M. He read the actual recommendation of the Foundation Budget Review Commission report regarding low income; rather than the recommendation's additional 50 to 100% per pupil additional for low income, he calculated H.70 only reached 52%. Secretary Peyser responded that there was a range and he could share numbers later.

Rep. James Kelcourse of Amesbury spoke of the various needs of his district, of suburban regional schools, some with shrinking enrollments, of charter schools, of vocational, noting that many of their needs would not be addressed by a change in the foundation budget. Secretary Peyser responded that in some cases, other parts of the budget needed to be looked at; the question is "how do we balance the interests of different parts of these communities." 

Rep. Williams noted that $550M was not what the Foundation Budget Review Commission recommended, that "the safety net is not cast far enough out." He further spoke of "takeover schools" and said he had no interest in privatizing. Secretary Peyser argued that the administration was proposing things "that would actually forestall" receivership. As for the funding, "Is it chiseled in stone? No, it is not," but is intended as the start of a conversation. Commissioner Riley said that the Department stood ready to assist with financial modeling. 

Next to testify were Representatives Aaron Vega of Holyoke, Mary Keefe of Worcester, and Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz of Boston, surrounded by cosponsors of the PROMISE Act, H586 and S238. Rep. Vega opened, saying "between these bills, they're 70% the same, but that 30% is where 70% of the money is" and "the low income [piece] contains the vast majority" of the funding.  The good work being done in Holyoke "will be lost" if the state doesn't push funding forward. He said that Holyoke "could never match this investment on its own." Vega closed "the time is now, the opportunity is now...our children cannot wait another 25 years for education reform." Rep. Keefe spoke of the bill as "the funding they were promised 25 years ago" and said "in these districts, communities rarely have the local resources to address the funding shortfalls" that other districts do using local resources.  Senator Chang-Diaz said "we made a radical, sensible promise to every child in the Commonwealth" 25 years ago, but the funding formula was wrong from the very first day. Twenty-six years after the education reform act, and 239 years after the Constitution commanded us to "cherish" education, she said, "Massachusetts still has one of the worst achievement gaps in the nation." "Does anyone honestly believe that children can close that gap on their own?" she asked, saying we could not stand another generation of "planned failure," and imploring them to have the courage to act.

Rep. Kelcourse asked about the model of time and funding, to which Sen. Chang-Diaz replied that the bill is modelled on implementation of the original foundation budget, which took seven years to roll out on a year by year basis, but she added she thought it important that the timeline not be at the expense of the right goals. Rep. Tyler asked what could be done to ensure that funding went to the students intended; Sen. Chang-Diaz spoke of the data transparency and tracking of funding in the bill. Rep. Vega noted Holyoke models, and Rep. Keefe spoke of the importance of site councils. Rep. Paul Tucker, sponsor of an alternative bill H576, spoke of his concern that a "team of rivals" was being set up with the series of bills filed. 
Rep. Peisch questioned the funding that would go to communities that spend "far in excess" of $18,000 per student, saying "my concern is that any dollar that goes to any city other than a Gateway city, is a dollar that isn't going to a Gateway city." Rep. Vega spoke of the needs of poor kids throughout the state. Sen Chang-Diaz said that the best needed to be taken of all bills. She said further, "we all know that we send plenty of aid to communities that are spending well over" the minimum required and have plenty of community wealth, and don't serve many low income students; "if we can do that, we can do this." 

Four members of the New England Patriots and the Players Coalition, greeted by enthusiastic applause, spoke next: Devin McCourty, Jason McCourty, Matt Slater, and Duron Harmon. Devin McCourty said as Patriots, "we know it is impossible to achieve success without resources." Noting that Massachusetts has among the worse achievement gaps in the nation, he said "we cannot fund our students as if they are a Little League team and expect them to perform at a Super Bowl level."Duron Harmon said "our schools need more resources but those resources should not come in the form of police" and "the easiest way is not always the best way." Matthew Slater said that they were there to "lend our voices to children, in particular impoverished children of color" because "children don't have a choice of what type of an education they receive." To Rep. Tucker's question as to if they had reviewed all of the other bills; Devin McCourty said they had, and from that they had decided to endorse the Promise Act. To a question from Rep. Kelcourse regarding where the funding would be directed, Devin McCourty said that it went to equity, "to playing on an level playing field." Rep. Williams noted that no one ever talks about the cost of putting people into prison "and most of them are black and brown." 

A panel of Mayors spoke next: Mayor Walsh of Boston, Mayor Rivera of Lawrence, Mayor LaChapelle of Easthampton, Mayor Spicer of Framingham, and Mayor Fiorentini of Haverhill. Mayor Walsh spoke of the challenges facing the Boston Public Schools, and said, "any reform must fully implement the recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission." He spoke of the accounting for charter school costs. Mayor LaChapelle said she was heartened to know that the state was watching today, and concerned about how we could move forward as a state without pitting some against others; "this has far exceeded a wants and wishes conversation," she said. Mayor Spicer said the mayors are united and "we're fighting for our children's future." She said they"hope for an inclusive solution for the betterment of our children." Mayor Rivera that even as there has been good work in the Lawrence schools, the formula still underfunds education in Lawrence; he noted that only the Promise Act fully includes all part of the Foundation Budget Review Commission's recommendations. Mayor Fiorentini spoke of the relationship of this underfunding with municipal debt, and said that the Haverhill schools are showing what can be done. 
Sen. Lewis noted that the amount of state aid that Boston receives is directly in relationship to Boston's significant municipal wealth, to which Mayor Walsh replied that 20% of state revenue comes from Boston and "I don't think that's a fair partnership." He said,"I'm not here talking about how METCO is taking all our top kids away, about how our charter schools are taking all our top kids away, about how private schools are taking all our top kids away" and "we're paying more than our fair share here." Mayor Rivera noted the lack of English learners in communities like Belmont. Rep. Peisch asked them to clarify that they were not there in support of a particular bill; Mayor Walsh said they want a bill "that lifts all communities from Boston to Belmont."

District Attorney Rollins of Suffolk County spoke in support of the Promise Act, saying in part,"a quality education is the most effective crime-prevention tool available" and that it is too often the criminal justice system that's left to pick up the pieces. She said,"we can either pay at the front end and invest in education and potential" or pay at the back end through the criminal justice system.

Attleboro submitted written comment that included their analysis of the impact of the various bills on the Attelboro Public Schools. This included testimony from Attleboro School Committee member Dave Quinn, noting "our actual costs for special education and health insurance were double that of the foundation budget" in FY17, leaving Attleboro, among other gaps, with one of nearly 200 teachers. He was reminded of the childhood game of Chutes and Ladders: "[d]uring the last decade, the school 'board' has been loaded with a multitude of chutes that have sent districts back after years of progress. There have been few ladders and here today to ask our legislature for a permanent one to be put in place." 

The Black and Latino caucus of the state legislature reviewed the recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission, and further reviewed the grave disparities among children in the state. They related they were "moved and motivated" by movement to action and reform "must benefit all the children of Massachusetts."

A panelist from the Mass Teachers Association reiterated that underfunding of schools is "by choice, by vote, by funding." As a parent, "I cannot afford to have my children in high school when these changes are implemented." A student panelist who had attended middle school in North Andover but high school in Boston said she knows what a great public school system looks like "and it exists ten miles down the road." Like many of the student panelists during the hearing, she said that she was not there for herself, but for the children who would come after her. A parent panelist said that students "shouldn't expect luck...they should expect opportunity." Under repeated questioning by the chair, panelists reiterated that only the Promise Act fulfilled all pieces of the Foundation Budget Review Commission's recommendations, and thus it had their support.

A panel from Lynn including Mayor McGee, Superintendent Tutwiler and the Lynn Teachers Union president Sheila O'Neil opened with Mayor McGee commenting that he couldn't remember there being so many mayors supporting a bill: "we're all here together to ensure our children get the education they deserve." He said that cities really needed the support to make ends meet. Ms. O'Neil said the schools have been underfunded for 20 years. Superintendent Tutwiler spoke of education being that of levelling the playing field for historically marginalized groups, that his motivation is "for our students, education is the only means towards equity." He said if he tells his students to do their best, "we must do our best." 

A Gateways Cities panel from Brockton, New Bedford, and Worcester opened with New Bedford Mayor Mitchell arguing "above all, we have to wake up and realize that it is not 1993 anymore," that the gaps are racial, economic, and geographic. Worcester Mayor Petty said the Commonwealth has two different educational systems: one of districts that can fund schools well above what is required and Gateway cities that cannot, but children everywhere "deserve the same chance to succeed." Brockton Superintendent Kathleen Smith said she was "saddened and dismayed after coming before more than a dozen times I am once again asking you to update a funding formula that is broken," and asked "is this acceptable for a state that claims to be number one in the nation?" She further reminded the Legislature "true leadership requires action before, not after, legal action." Worcester Superintendent Maureen Binienda asked if we have lived up to the trust of parents who send their children to the public schools. New Bedford Superintendent Anderson quoted from Jonathan Kozol's Savage Inequalities: 

"In a country in where there is no distinction of class," Lord Acton wrote of the United States 130 years ago, "a child is not born to the state of its parents, but with an indefinite claim to all the prizes that can be won by thought and labor. It is in conformity with the theory of give as near as possible to every youth an equal state of life."

Worcester Public Schools CFO Brian Allen noted that the Worcester Public Schools spend less now staff development, IT, materials, and maintenance, adjusted for inflation, than they did in 2002; while the foundation budget provides Worcester with 2335 regular ed teachers, the district has 1600. While Worcester has a successful record with turnarounds, "to implement successful programs like these, Worcester needs the highest level of funding" including that for low income students.

A Mass Parents United panel expressed concern over the tracking of funding; a Lowell parent said "something in the system is broken" and that money alone wasn't enough to fix it. A parent from Boston noted that the system is among the most unequal in the country, specifically speaking of Boston's exam schools, using police in schools and excessive suspensions. A Springfield parent "I'm so happy that we are talking about giving schools more funds, which is desperately needed," but also of the school to prison pipeline. Senator Lewis asked for more specifics on the requests, to which parents replied that they would like to be heard, to have a say in how the money is spent. 

 A panel of Boston City Councilors spoke in favor of the Promise Act, followed by a panel of legislators also speaking in favor of the Promise Act. Senator Kennedy of Lowell "when you have programs that make a difference, but you have funding that doesn't take into account these issues, you have failure." Senator Jehlen of Somerville said "if we are serious about closing the achievement gap, it will cost money." Senator Comerford of Northampton said "current funding system shortchanges our schools, but more importantly, it shortchanges our students." 

Speaking as part of a panel with MTA leadership, AFL-CIO President Steven Tolman urged the committee "to be bold and to be quick" in implementing funding changes. AFT-MA President Beth Kontos said, "really poverty is our greatest burden...and students in poverty are burdened with the most worries." A Chicopee teacher suggested "maybe the challenges of our students have increased because the funding hasn't." In an exchange of questions from Rep. Tyler, the lack of teachers of color in the state and a host of institutional challenges around increasing that number including student testing, college completion rates, the MTEL, district and community support were discussed.

A panel from MASS submitted a school finance priority paper, saying that over past few years, districts have reached a tipping point. Chelsea superintendent Mary Bourque, who served on the Foundation Budget Review Commission, observed that the Commission found that the state failed to meet our moral and legal obligations; "it is a state issue, it is a social issue." 

The Mass Municipal Association submitted four principles: that the Foundation Budget Review Commission recommendations be implemented; that the cycle of damage on charter school funding be ended; that there be an assurance of net minimum aid; that a rurality factor be included.

Springfield Education Association President in response to earlier comments from Governor Baker said "we certainly don't need more empowerment zones or innovation zones...[it has] not proved to be the accountability miracle that it was touted to be" in Springfield. She said, "we have never fully funded our schools; I would suggest that is the measure we should try." A student from Springfield observed the difference between her school and those in Longmeadow; she asked if students in Longmeadow deserve a better education than kids in Springfield.
Worcester School Committee member Dante Comparetto said that he himself grew up in poverty, depended on schools for food, and was for a time homeless; he said, "I recognize that I was one of the lucky ones to get out of street life...countless kids in the Worcester Public Schools have had experiences like the ones I had." He endorsed the Promise Act, speaking of the poverty increment. Massachusetts Board of Education member Mary Ann Stewart, drawing on her experience as a PTA member and president of the state association, a town meeting member, and a former Lexington School Committee member, said "decisions we make today will have a generational impact on students." 

Mass Business Alliance for Education Executive Director Ed Lambert said the 1993 act was "adequate funding with robust accountability and most importantly, you shouldn't expect one without the other," that "new money must lead to improved results," and that "improved graduation rates alone" have not told the story of how unprepared students are for life after high school. The Chair of MBEA, who spoke of his experience running a health care company and started two charter schools, said "funding and reform must go hand and hand." 

The Mass Charter Public School Association gave testimony of their strong support for a change in the foundation budget, speaking from the perspective of both urban and rural educators. Speaking from Springfield, they noted,"when our districts are underfunded, so are we." 

A senior at Boston Latin School noted that her own school didn't have enough teachers, and if that were true at her school, what was it like elsewhere? Speaking of the report of the Foundation Budget Review Commission, she said,"If I wrote a paper four years ago, and never turned it in, I failed that assignment." The president of the Everett High senior class said, "we as students should not have to worry about the things we do every day" and spoke of her younger brother: "this will also help my little brother Adam...I stand with Adam and all the students that will come" after him. A father from Framingham said, "I want my daughter to enjoy the benefits of studying with students with a diverse background...but I worry that many of my daughter's friends will not do as well as her because their school is not properly funded." 

Democrats for Education Reform submitted testimony saying "our mission compels us to support the FBRC recommendations." Further testimony discussed a concern over "unmonitored infusions of cash" into school districts.

Citizens for Public Schools urged "a prompt and favorable" report out of committee for the Promise Act. Speaking of the shifts in costs, "when the state backs off its responsibility, it exacerbates the inequities among communities."  

 The Mass School Administrators Association noted there "still exists a great deal of inequality of opportunity among young people in the Commonwealth," and they endorsed any bill which fully implemented the Foundation Budget Review Commission's recommendations, specifically also mentioning the Promise Act.

 A speaker from an interfaith group said the chronic underfunding of our schools was "not only injust; it is immoral...we must act to fight this injustice."

Nerissa Wallen, chair of the Triton Regional School Committee, said her own district has been receiving hold harmless funding since 2011 due to decreasing enrollment, while costs have risen, as "costs do not decrease proportionally with the number of students lost. "For Triton and so many other districts with decreasing populations, the Chapter 70 formula is broken." She asked that districts like hers not be left behind as the Legislature takes up school finance. 

A parent from Roxbury asked,"how is that one of the highest ranks states in educational achievement has failed to guaranteed quality education to all of your children?" She argued that disadvantaged inner city children "aren't in your budget" and this punishes students. 

The president of the Malden teachers' union said she sees "students who deserve more and get less just because their zip code 02148." She said this was a "once in a generation chance," observing that the foundation budget was put into place when she was twelve years old. The President of the Dennis-Yarmouth teachers' union repeating "because I am a teacher, I am an optimist," said that it was getting hard to hope. She said, "our cities and towns cannot do it alone." 

The husband of a teacher who lives in North Brookfield spoke of his own small rural district and the contrast with the district in which his wife teaches close to 495. He had "come here to advocate for the Promise act and to advocate for increase funding for rural schools across the state." 

 The final panel of the day was one on social emotional and behavioral health. Speakers said they were "here to support the Promise act...I'd ask you recognize the great need for change." They spoke of the expanded needs of students in the schools: "Simply put, our children are suffering." They said, "when kids don't get appropriate education, they get frustrated" and will often shut down because they know what they don't know. "Think," they urged the committeee, "of what would happen for one moment if we gave kids what they need?"