Area lawmakers praise passage of $1.5 billion state education bill

  • This Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019 photo shows the Massachusetts Statehouse in Boston. Using a different procedure, supporters of the so-called millionaire tax are again mounting an effort to put the proposed constitutional amendment before Massachusetts voters. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola) Elise Amendola

  • Dan Carey running for second Hampshire District State Rep Tuesday, July 17, 2018

  • In this Aug. 20, 2018 photo, Massachusetts state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Hampshire, speaks during an interview in Springfield, Mass. Allegations that an incumbent male state lawmaker grabbed the backside of a newly elected female lawmaker during a pre-session reception prompted Sabadosa and another freshmen female lawmaker to sponsor legislation that would create an independent commission to investigate complaints of workplace harassment by lawmakers. (Don Treeger/The Republican via AP) Don Treeger

  • Blais

Staff Writer
Published: 10/25/2019 12:13:22 AM

NORTHAMPTON — The Massachusetts House unanimously approved a historic $1.5 billion education reform bill Wednesday night, and local lawmakers in the chamber are touting the improvements they say the legislation makes to public education.

“It’s very exciting,” said Rep. Dan Carey, D-Easthampton. “The foundation of the public funding formula has not had a substantial update like this since 1993 and it’s long overdue.”

The legislation aims to rectify four substantially underfunded areas in state public education brought to light by the state Foundation Budget Review Commission four years ago. The state funding model was found to have been underestimating the cost of education by $1 billion annually by inadequately accounting for expenses related to low-income students, English learners, special education and employee health benefits.

The bill’s “revision of the formula makes sure educational opportunity is not based on your ZIP code, but that you live in Massachusetts,” said Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst.

Over the last two legislative sessions, the House and Senate have failed to reach agreement on education funding reform. The collapse of negotiations on school finance bills at the end of last session prompted a renewed push from advocates this year, including the filing of a lawsuit alleging that chronic underfunding has created unconstitutional disparities in public education.

Under the House bill, Carey said, some communities in the region are less likely to see extra money due to fewer low-income and non-English-speaking students compared to larger cities in eastern Massachusetts. But there are still problems in the Pioneer Valley associated with funding for employee health care and special education.

“It will help every district use more accurate numbers for health care costs for school employees,” Carey said.

Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, said she believes more funding to support low-income students in larger cities will reverberate across the commonwealth.

“Cities don’t have big walls around them,” Sabadosa said. “If students aren’t doing well, that affects us here in Northampton and in the Pioneer Valley.”

The bill also allows for more funds to be allocated to the Massachusetts School Building Authority, Carey said, along with more money for transporting special education students placed out-of-district.

“Sometimes those out-of-district transportation costs are a lot farther and the costs are higher in our region,” he said.

Rural school districts in the state are experiencing declining enrollment, Carey said, and the bill passed by the House would create a commission to study how a per-student model of funding affects those districts through an amendment submitted by Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland.

“We absolutely need a commission that is going to study the long-term fiscal health of rural schools,” Blais said, noting declining enrollment is happening across the state.

“That will really affect the state aid they receive,” Carey said of the commission.

Sabadosa said she would have liked to see her amendment for full regional school transportation reimbursements in the final draft, but it was withdrawn. Some districts in Westhampton, Southampton and Montgomery are only being partially reimbursed for these programs, she said.

“They are really hurting because they aren’t being reimbursed to 100 percent,” Sabadosa said.

Domb said she was happy to see an amendment of hers in the House’s final draft, a stipulation which she said would require charter schools receiving public funds to submit data to the state on progress accountability plans, just as public schools do.

“The accountability that’s going to be given to district schools, that will be given to charter schools,” Domb said. “In my mind, it’s really a fairness issue.”

Carey is hopeful Gov. Charlie Baker will sign the bill, noting that there were some differences between the legislation the House passed and the Senate version that also unanimously passed earlier this month.

Most notably, the Senate bill featured a provision that removed the education commissioner’s authority to require that districts revise plans for closing achievement gaps that are found to be inadequate, instead saying the commissioner could “recommend plan amendments.”

A similar amendment was offered on the floor Wednesday night but was withdrawn, and Carey said he was surprised it was withdrawn since he thought it had some support. He said it wasn’t unusual for the House and Senate to pass non-identical bills.

“I think we’ll be able to iron out those differences,” he said.​

Domb said the fact that every elected official in both houses of the Legislature voted for substantially similar bills says a lot. The bill still needs to be reconciled in conference committee due to differences between chambers, but Domb said she was “pretty confident that something is going to come out of conference committee that we are all going to sign.”

“It’s a beautiful moment in Massachusetts history,” Domb said.

This story contains information from the State House News Service. Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com.

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