Our Opinion: A major opportunity for education funding
While it was disappointing that the proposed major school funding finance overhaul fell short of completion in the last legislative session, the good news was that the pieces were all essentially in place for the beginning of this session. That led to Thursday's announcement of a $1.5 billion revamping of public education in the state that appears to have pleased all of the parties involved.
A state commission report that found the current school finance formula underestimates the cost of public education by at least $1 billion and as much as $2 billion triggered the effort to not only increase funding but make sure that funding was targeted to specific areas of need. Efforts to reconcile fairly modest discrepancies in House and Senate legislation led to the failure to offer a bill before the end of the last session, but lawmakers quickly settled their differences in those areas in a joint committee. "This is a game changer for addressing inequities in education across the state," said state Sen. Adam Hinds, a Pittsfield Democrat. "Every single school district will benefit from this." ("Berkshire Legislative delegation gives thumbs up," Eagle, Sept. 20.)
The bill, dubbed the Student Opportunity Act, calls for a boost in funding over seven years in the four problem areas cited by the state commission: Employee health care, special education, low-income students and English language learners. Inadequate funding for low-income students has been a particular concern for the Berkshire legislative delegation, with Pittsfield Democrat Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier observing that "The quality of education shouldn't be done based on your ZIP code." The bill calls for the formation of a commission to study specific problems facing rural districts, such as underfunding of regional school transportation costs that has hampered regional school districts for many years. Other provisions would reward schools and districts that pursue innovative approaches to education and add funds to the Massachusetts School Building Authority's annual budget. The measure requires districts to report on how they are spending the money remaining in local control, according to Sen. Hinds.
House and Senate leaders insist that no new taxes or tax hikes will be needed to pay for the $1.5 billion increase. They are obviously assuming that the revenue increases generated by a solid economy that enabled lawmakers to boost education funding recently will continue, but that is not guaranteed considering shakiness in the national financial picture. Rep. Farley-Bouvier did note that the time span of the plan could be extended from seven years if revenues fell short.of projections.
Hearings on the bill are anticipated in both the House and Senate in October and changes could result. Gov. Baker has withheld comment on the bill's specifics but he has been an advocate of increased school funding.
Efforts to get education spending up to speed to meet demands on districts and responsibilities to parents and students is at least four years overdue. This must be the legislative session that meets those obligations.
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