House debates landmark education funding bill

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The Massachusetts House of Representatives on Wednesday took up sweeping legislation to overhaul the state’s education funding system, a measure that would pump an additional $1.4 billion in direct aid to local districts, trying to bridge the divide in educational opportunities between poor and affluent systems.

Even before debate began, a major disagreement opened up between House leadership and their Senate colleagues about how much power the legislation should grant state education officials who would oversee local districts’ use of the new funds.

Unveiling the version of the bill the House would consider, House leaders stripped out changes to accountability provisions that were made by the Senate when it considered the bill three weeks ago. Critics — Governor Charlie Baker among them — said the Senate-passed changes weakened measures designed to provide accountability of how districts use the extra funds, which would be doled out over the next seven years. The changes, which were backed by the state’s powerful teachers unions, were intended to clarify the language, senators said.

“In our view, it went beyond clarifying,” Representative Alice H. Peisch, the House chairwoman of the education committee, told reporters after House Democrats huddled behind closed doors to discuss the bill.

“We recognize that the local communities and the teachers and the administrators on the ground are in a much better position than someone at the state level to determine what those students need,” she said. “But in those rare instances where maybe the decisions . . . are not achieving the goal of offering all students a good education and spending those dollars well, we have to have some mechanisms to ensure that this money gets to the students for whom it is intended to serve.”

The accountability language in the House bill is the exact wording agreed to by the joint Senate-House education committee in the consensus bill its members hammered out, House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said. That consensus bill is the base text embraced by both chambers.

“You could call it a so-called compromise in terms of what people feel was the right balance between state involvement and local involvement,” DeLeo said of the accountability provision. “I think all sides will be served better with the language that we have.”

The House also included modified language from the Senate’s version that sets a floor for what districts receive in direct state aid while the new formula is rolled out over the next seven years. The measure, lawmakers say, is intended to guarantee that no district receives less money under the rejiggered — but still highly complex — school funding formula, than it would under the current version.

Peisch estimated this “transitional hold harmless aid” provision would apply to approximately one dozen to two dozen school districts out of the more than 400 in the state.

It would sunset at the end of the bill’s seven-year implementation period.

“This language is designed to ensure that no district, at the end of the day, would be hurt by the new formula,” the Wellesley Democrat said.

Lawmakers added the language in as questions have swirled about how the bill would affect individual districts. On the eve of the Senate debate earlier this month, the Baker administration released its own district-by-district estimates of what the bill would mean for local communities, but it drew fierce criticism from legislative leaders, who called the numbers flawed, incomplete, and misleading.

But so far no one from the state Legislature has publicly provided alternative estimates. Peisch’s office e-mailed House members Monday, saying the committee had prepared its own projections of what each district “may potentially receive” that lawmakers could pick up ahead of debate. The figures, the committee cautioned, were being “offered as a broad guide to how this bill may affect districts.”

But Peisch did not commit to releasing them to the general public.

“Right at the moment, we are focusing on getting the information to members,” she said Tuesday. “The information has been developed to give members a general sense of the potential impact. Beyond that, I don’t have any further comment.”

House members put forward 69 amendments, including one that would restore the controversial Senate language.

Beyond revamping the formula, the bill would create a fund with up to $10 million annually for grants toward school-improvement efforts, and it would increase spending on school construction projects. It would also add $90 million more to a separate pot of money that reimburses districts for some tuition and transportation costs for students with profound disabilities who attend private programs. Those additions, lawmakers say, push the total package to $1.5 billion.


Victoria McGrane can be reached at [email protected]. Matt Stout can be reached at [email protected]

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