IT WAS SUPPOSED to be the first year of a new school funding formula that was going to vastly increase public school spending.
Instead, amid a global pandemic, the state will level-fund K-12 schools under the old formula – but rely on federal funds to increase that amount and help schools address the additional needs created by the coronavirus pandemic.
The budget Gov. Charlie Baker proposed in January would have increased school funding by $303 million – and even that figure, some advocates argued, would not fully pay for the required increase under the new formula established by the Student Opportunity Act.
Now, state school aid will increase by only $107 million compared to last year – aid required under the old formula to cover inflation and enrollment changes – which will bring total education aid up to $5.28 billion. There will be another approximately $450 million available from various federal sources.
Baker’s office announced the figures Thursday evening and said they had been discussed with legislative leaders.
“The education spending agreed to translates to higher total spending year-over-year than the $303 million increase originally proposed in House 2, which fully funded the first year of the Student Opportunity Act,” said Baker spokesman Terry MacCormack. “Despite the almost unprecedented fiscal challenges we all face, the amount of state and federal support announced thus far ensures the Administration and the Legislature can continue supporting record investments in Massachusetts students.”
But Colin Jones, senior budget analyst for the liberal-leaning Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, said it is a “complex” question to figure out how much money schools need compared to how much they will get from state and federal funding.
“What we were going to do was $300 million to do inflation and (Student Opportunity Act), and we didn’t have COVID costs to worry about,” Jones said.
Now, schools have added expenses for masks, hand sanitizer and cleaning equipment, to retrofit spaces and improve ventilation. They must figure out how to incorporate remote and in-person learning and how to run less crowded buses.
“What would it take to make Lynn, Chelsea, Holyoke and Boston’s facilities, rooms and buses ready for that?” Jones asked. “That number conceptually we don’t know, but it’s much more probably than what we’re getting and what’s available now.”
Another major question will be how the money is distributed. The new formula would have added additional money for high-poverty districts, English language learners, special education and employee health benefits. The greatest increases were supposed to go to the poorest districts, which were the most heavily dependent on state aid.
The federal money includes $194 million distributed through the Title I formula, which will benefit low-income schools. Another $202 million will be in general school reopening funds. There is $25 million earmarked for remote learning technology, and the rest of the money is in either discretionary funds or competitive grants. It was not immediately clear how it will be determined how much each district gets, outside of the Title I formula.
A group of advocates concerned about adequate school funding, the Coalition for Fair School Finance, had threatened to sue the state if the Student Opportunity Act was not fully implemented this year.
Andrew Farnitano, a spokesman for the coalition, said the group was still reviewing the governor’s plan and will be “focused on the impact on the lowest-income districts that need the most.”
Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Boston Democrat who led a 2015 commission examining the school funding formula and has been a strong advocate for more funding, said given the current volatility and uncertainty, many expected education aid to be cut. Instead, school districts are getting an adjustment to reflect inflation. “Given the current circumstances, holding steady is a huge lift,” Chang-Diaz said in a statement.
While MacCormack said the governor was making the announcement now to provide clarity to districts as they finalize their budgets, the numbers could be revised in the future, if the state ends up with additional money. The Legislature has not yet passed a full-year budget for fiscal 2021, which started July 1. And lawmakers say they are waiting to see what Congress does regarding another stimulus package.
House Assistant Majority Leader Joseph Wagner said Wednesday, in urging lawmakers to pass an extension to the legislative session, that lawmakers “hope to be able to revisit” the school funding numbers later this year.
Baker also announced that local government aid – unrestricted money that the state gives to cities and towns – will be level funded, at no less than the amount they got in fiscal 2020. That will cost the state $1.13 billion.
Massachusetts Municipal Association Executive Director Geoff Beckwith said in a statement that it was “very welcome news” that the administration is protecting local aid during the pandemic-related economic crisis. “With this key financial guidance, communities can finalize their fiscal 2021 budgets, allowing them to continue their work fighting the coronavirus pandemic and delivering the essential quality-of-life services that drive our economy,” Beckwith said in a statement.
The governor separately announced that he was allocating $50 million in federal aid to help both schools and colleges. This includes $25 million to help colleges, universities and non-public elementary and secondary schools implement reopening plans. It includes $10 million for early literacy programs to help students in third grade or younger remediate learning loss, $7.5 million to expand access to online courses, $2.5 million in financial aid for low-income college students and $5 million for an emergency reserve fund.