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SHNS: Lawmakers seek review of 18-year-old education funding formula

September 15, 2009

September 15, 2009
By Kyle Cheney, State House News Serv ice

Education heavyweights exerted their influence Tuesday in support of a proposal for an “adequacy study” of the state’s education system, saying a comprehensive financial analysis hadn’t been done since 1991, two years ahead of Massachusetts’s last major education overhaul.

Already with significant legislative support – 43 Democratic lawmakers have signed onto the proposal – the bill (S 278) filed by Sen. Karen Spilka would fund a $600,000 review led by a committee of public officials and an independent contractor that Spilka said could help guide future education financing.

In a nod to the fiscal downturn, backers of the proposal said they don’t expect significant increases in the state’s education budget, perhaps for years. But they pointed to legal opinions requiring high-quality education for all and raised the specter of potential lawsuits if the state doesn’t begin preparing now.

The bill, as filed, includes provisions to raise the education foundation budget for cities and towns, but Spilka, acknowledging the tight fiscal times, said there were plans to amend the bill the limit it to a study.

“We talk about how much education has changed over the years. That’s what I want to highlight, how much education has changed over even these last 20 years,” she told the Committee on Education at an afternoon hearing. “We have the obligation to keep on top of the changing needs of our students.”

The proposal tasks the officials with reviewing the necessary resources that affect “class size; special education programs, including programs for English language learners; preschool programs for all 3- and 4-year-olds and full-day kindergarten; additional resources needed to assure educational opportunity for low-income students; salaries needed to attract and retain high quality professionals; technology; extracurricular programs; remedial programs for students at risk of failing to satisfy graduation requirements; and quality books and equipment for science labs.”

More than a dozen education experts, union leaders and local district officials followed Spilka, arguing the study is essential to preparing for the future – and to comply with court-ordered education standards.

Norma Shapiro, an official with the ACLU and the Council for Fair School Finance, said the study was akin to similar state reviews of “shovel-ready” projects in advance of federal stimulus funding, preparing the state to take action should current economic conditions improve.

“We are practical enough to understand the fiscal situation,” Shapiro said. “We need to see some continuation of planning ahead … We’re pleading for a strategic plan. We’re pleading for some rationality.”

Anne Wass, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, pointed to a Superior Court decision by Margot Botsford – now a Supreme Judicial Court Justice – that found many school districts “lack the resources necessary to provide a quality education to all.”

“Given all of this, why wouldn’t we want to update the centerpiece of our school funding formula as soon as possible?” she argued in prepared remarks. “There are some who say that the severity of the economic downturn prohibits us from even looking to increase funding for our schools. To this we say: we understand that it is very unlikely that education funding will be increased within the next few years, but this does not obviate our obligation to look to the future, to determine whether we are adequately funding our schools, even if we are unable to provide additional resources at this time.”

Wass said some lawmakers seemed afraid that undertaking a study that shows more should be spent on education could result in a lawsuit, if funding is not appropriated.

“We do not agree with this assessment and, in fact, some would argue that a lawsuit could result if the foundation budget is not increased or an adequacy study undertaken,” she said.


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