House bill would increase school funding

More than 30 state representatives filed a bill March 13 that would increase school spending requirements and allocate $610 million in new state funds to local public schools over the next three years. The new spending commitment is equal to the amount of revenue that would be lost if the Legislature adopted Gov. Mitt Romney's plan to roll back the income tax to 5 percent.

The bill is entitled Funding Schools for Student Success. The chief sponsors are Reps. John Scibak (D-South Hadley), Robert Spellane (D-Worcester) and David Linsky (D-Natick).

This legislation is the only proposal before the Legislature that significantly increases the so-called "foundation budget" established under Chapter 70 of the Massachusetts General Laws. The foundation budget, developed as part of the Education Reform Act of 1993, has not been updated in a fundamental way since it was created 13 years ago, though education requirements, including curriculum frameworks and high-stakes MCAS tests, have been implemented since then.

While spending on education did increase significantly in the decade after the Education Reform Act was passed, many districts were forced to eliminate programs and hike student user fees during the recent recession and budget cuts. Although Chapter 70 aid is currently at its highest level ever, when enrollment changes and inflation are taken into account, aid is about $400 million lower than it was in FY02.  More than 90 percent of the state's operating districts have yet to re-attain their FY02 aid levels, after adjusting for inflation and enrollment.

Facing rising costs for energy and health care, many districts are still being forced to cut programs and staffing levels, even though the economy is on the rebound.

"The cuts have taken a toll on many of our schools," said Rep. Scibak. "This bill will help to restore needed programs. It is drafted to tackle two key issues with education funding – making sure schools have enough money to help all students achieve and distributing education funds fairly."

"The foundation budget established in 1993 set the floor below which spending could not fall," explained Rep. Spellane. "It was tremendously helpful in defining what experts at that time believed schools needed to succeed. Today, however, we can see some areas where the budget requirements fall short. Despite the progress that has been made, the achievement gap between low-income and more affluent districts remains large. This bill begins to correct weaknesses in the old foundation budget formula."

Funding Schools for Student Success addresses both adequacy and equity – that is, it requires increased spending to account for new educational requirements, and also adjusts the Chapter 70 aid distribution formula so that communities with similar levels of income and property wealth receive similar amounts of state aid.

Among other changes, it adds new funds to reduce class sizes in grades K-3 in all districts and to expand after-school and remedial programs for low-income students. Funds are also added to help districts pay for special education services, since the foundation budget has historically understated those costs.

The bill would increase Chapter 70 aid by $278 million in coming fiscal year, $74 million to account for inflation and changes in enrollment and $204 million in new spending to help meet higher educational goals and to bring about greater fairness in the distribution of aid.

Romney's budget would increase Chapter 70 aid by $164 million next year, roughly half of which is needed to keep up with inflation and changes in enrollment. It does not make significant changes to the foundation budget.

"All students are entitled to a good education in Massachusetts," said Rep. Linsky. "It's their ticket to becoming good, productive citizens. We have a lot of terrific schools and many successful students, but we are ambitious for more. We believe that every school should be a great school, and all children should have the opportunity to pursue their dreams."

"There is now a substantial body of research that shows what works to help students achieve in school," he continued. "Students learn better in small class sizes. Students learn better when they are taught by well trained, well educated teachers. Struggling students need more support and more time in school to master the curriculum. Let's give schools the tools they need to implement these basic improvements."

The legislation has also been endorsed by the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the Massachusetts Federation of Teachers and the ACLU of Massachusetts.

The bill is expected to be referred to the Joint Committee on Education.