Our Opinion: A landmark bill on education funding

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The compromise education bill approved unanimously Wednesday by both bodies of the state Legislature is the most ambitious attempt to address education funding inequities in the state in a quarter of a century. The bill, which Gov. Baker is expected to sign and has been endorsed by both teachers and business organizations, which are frequently at loggerheads, is a landmark effort worth celebrating.

Still, there are nagging concerns that went unaddressed.

The legislation, which will increase education funding by $1.4 billion over seven years, is in response to a sobering commission report that found that the state's education formula, created in 1993, was underestimating the current cost of education by between $1 billion and $2 billion. The greatest funding inequities were in low-income districts without the funding resources that wealthier communities have to make up for shortfalls in state funding. The additional funding will be targeted to these districts with the goal of raising per student funding in poor districts and leveling funding from district to district across the state.

Earlier this fall, when the governor released his own education funding bill, one that is generally similar to the Legislature's bill, he upset lawmakers by asserting that the increase in state funding would require several communities to dramatically increase their funding under the education formula. Berkshire communities would see funding increases that would roughly match the spending increases they would be responsible for. Lawmakers disputed the numbers, claiming the administration's funding formula was inaccurate. but did not offer their own. Lawmakers were determined to pass the bill as their last act of 2019 but these figures should have come first.

The legislation is popular with lawmakers in large part because no tax or fee increases are required. Legislative leaders are confident that revenue hikes produced by the state's solid economy will account for the funding. But will the economy hum for seven years, the length of the funding program? Many economists assert that the United States is overdue for a recession and there are signs of one on the horizon.

The Eagle has maintained that the increase in funding should be accompanied by the creation of a dedicated revenue stream to assure that it is funded. Many lawmakers support a proposed constitutional amendment that will impose an additional surcharge on the state income tax for those earning more than $1 million, generating an estimated $2 billion annually in revenue to be dedicated to education. This measure, assuming it passes constitutional muster, which a referendum question creating a millionaires tax failed to do in 2018, could not go on the ballot before 2022 even if it does pass muster. That dedicated revenue stream through tax increases should have been found to accompany passage of the education funding increase.

The bill was hung up late in the last session over the issue of accountability of schools. The Senate wanted the state's commissioner of elementary and secondary to be able to review district funding plans and demand changes to those that were not "in compliance." This angered teachers who believe the state is already given to micro-managing schools. The final language enables the commissioner to seek amendments to funding plans, which teachers union officials told The Boston Globe they can live with. Accountability arose as an issue largely because of urban school failings in the eastern end of the state and has not been a specific Berkshire problem. The governor and business groups demand this provision, however, and no bill was going to pass without a nod to accountability and transparency.

The bill also calls for the creation of a fund with up to $10 million in grants toward school improvements, along with an increase in spending on construction projects. The state's funding formula currently pushes school districts toward construction rather than renovation, and the grant program could create a better balance.

Reservations aside, should this bill become law in the days ahead it will be a noteworthy achievement long in the making. We urge the lawmakers to be receptive to adjustments to reflect economic realities and new or different needs that emerge in the schools, where they confront teachers and administrators long before they are felt by the education hierarchy in Boston.

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