AFTER YEARS OF false starts and Beacon Hill standoffs on a growing funding crisis that has seen school districts shed hundreds of teachers and pare back vital curriculum offerings to balance budgets, Gov. Charlie Baker signed landmark legislation on Tuesday committing the state to $1.5 billion in new aid to Massachusetts schools. 

There was a celebratory mood in the air at the Boston high school where he signed the bill, but it was tempered by two big concerns going forward: How the state will make good on the funding commitments spelled out in the bill, and whether the money will be spent in ways that help close the yawning achievement gaps that have been the focus of so much of attention in recent years.

The bill-signing, before an enthusiastic crowd of students, union leaders, local officials, and state lawmakers at English High School in Boston, capped a drawn-out effort to reset the state’s 26-year-old education funding formula, with much of the new money earmarked for districts with lots of low-income students, which have struggled to keep pace with rising costs. 

“Talent is evenly distributed. What’s not evenly distributed is opportunity,” Baker said after signing the bill. “There’s a reason why this is the Student Opportunity Act, because this legislation is about making sure that every kid in the Commonwealth, regardless of where they live, where they go to school, where they’re from has the opportunity to get the education that they need to be great.”

Nov. 26, 2019
Gov. Charlie Baker signs the Student Opportunity Act at English High School in Boston.

Sen. Jason Lewis, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Education — who arrived at the Jamaica Plain school with an entourage of his State House staff via the MBTA’s Orange Line — said the “moment, for me, ranks right up there with my wedding day and the birth of my two daughters.”

The bill comes four years after a state commission concluded that state aid was shortchanging districts by more than $1 billion because the funding formula had not kept pace with rising costs for employee health care, special education, and the costs of educating English language learners and low-income students.

Senate President Karen Spilka urged those gathered in the English High gymnasium to “continue to hold our feet to the fire in implementation” of the bill. 

Tracy Novick, a school finance expert who was elected earlier this month to the Worcester School Committee, said the hard part lies ahead. “It’s really important for us to remember this isn’t over, that now it becomes actually funding it,” she said of the bill. The stakes are particularly high for districts like Worcester, which has almost 800 fewer teachers than it would if the funding formula had kept up with rising costs, and has been without any reading or literacy specialists since 2004. 

The $1.5 billion in new state aid is to be phased-in over seven years, but that means the increases will depend on annual state budget appropriations. With no new revenue stream created to fund the bill, lawmakers are counting on continued robust state tax receipts, something that would be thrown off by an economic downturn. 

Nov 26, 2019
Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, who spent years working for the state funding increase, is all smiles at the bill-signing for the Student Opportunity Act at English High School in her Jamaica Plain-based district. (Photo by Michael Jonas)

Some legislators are looking to a likely 2022 ballot question that would raise taxes on the state’s highest earners to help with any funding challenge, but that potential pot of new revenue is years away. 

The bill developed by lawmakers promises more than $1 billion more in new education aid than the proposal Baker filed in January. If the governor has reservations about the funding level of the bill, he wasn’t sharing them on Tuesday. 

“We’re going to find a way to make it work,” Baker said following the bill signing when asked where the money would come from. “We did it the last time we did education reform. We’ll do it this time,” he said, referring to the 1993 Education Reform Act, which also set in motion big increases in state aid to school districts without a dedicated new revenue stream. 

The setting for the bill signing was a curious choice given the emphasis the legislation places on steering money to districts that have been struggling to educate students with funding levels at or near the state required minimum of about $14,000 per pupil.

Brockton, Lowell, and Worcester, for example, all spent between $14,000 and $15,000 per pupil in 2017. Boston, by contrast, which enjoys a rich commercial tax base thanks to its booming downtown, spends more than $20,000 per student. Despite that funding, English High School has suffered from chronically low student achievement and low graduation rates, and falls in the bottom category of the state accountability system, designated as “in need of broad/comprehensive support.” 

“Money in and of itself doesn’t confer superior performance. It’s how you spend the money that matters,” said former state education secretary Paul Reville. “We have high spending, low performing districts and low spending, high-performing districts.”

The final negotiations on the bill came down to a tussle over how much oversight to give the state education commissioner in reviewing how districts spend the state aid. In the end, lawmakers agreed to give the commissioner the power to review and reject the three-year improvement plans districts are required to submit. 

Rep. Alice Peisch, the House cochair of the education committee, offered the most pointed comments at Tuesday’s bill-signing on the need to maintain close watch on how the new funding gets spent. 

Not only do state’s most vulnerable student populations need adequate resources, she said in her remarks, “It is incumbent on all of us to have the same expectations for the children in every single school in the Commonwealth.”

“During the course of developing this legislation, I saw too many examples of districts with persistent gaps in achievement that were spending far in excess of the amount that we are now establishing as the foundation budget base, but somehow the neediest students were receiving the least,” Peisch said.  “Accountability is not a dirty word, it is the mechanism by which we ensure that the funding we provide is spent in a way that benefits the students for whom it was intended.”