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Massachusetts To Debate Changes To Outdated Education Funding Formula

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   Funding for K-12 schools in Massachusetts has emerged as a key issue as the new legislative session begins in earnest on Beacon Hill.

   Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker has proposed along with his $42.7 billion state budget an overhaul of the 25-year-old education funding formula that critics believe lies at the heart of striking academic achievement gaps between urban and suburban schools.

   " Today, along side our budget proposal we're filing a multi-year school finance reform initiative which will increase funding for school districts to invest in a quality education for every child regardless of their zip code including a significant increase in funding for communities with the highest need," said Baker when he unvieled his fiscal year 2020 budget proposal on January 23 at the State House.

   The Republican governor’s plan calls for changes over time to the so-called foundation budget, which is what the state requires be spent by every school on a per-student basis.  It would change the calculation used to determine how much state financial assistance goes to each school district.

  In 2015, a state commission determined the actual cost of education was being under-calculated by $1 billion annually.  According to the report, more money is needed to cover health care costs. Also, the foundation formula shortchanges schools with high percentages of students who have special needs, are English learners, and come from low-income families.

   The commission determined that Springfield -- the second largest school system in the state – should be receiving almost $90 million more in education aid, according to Mayor Domenic Sarno.

" Would I love to pick that up in a one shot deal? I certainly would.  But the money has to come from somewhere and the governor  has shown good faith and wants to get it done," said Sarno.

Baker’s proposal would phase in changes over seven years and result in a $1.1 billion increase in education spending.

The governor’s plan lacks urgency, in the view of Democratic State Representative Aaron Vega of Holyoke.

"Think about the fact that kids now in 5th or 6th grade will barely see an impact," he said.

Vega is the house co-sponsor of legislation called the Promise Act that would implement recommendations from the 2015 commission report without specifying a phase-in period.  It has been endorsed by several mayors, school officials, and education advocacy groups.

"I think it is critical we get it done for the next budget cycle and for the school year starting in 2019," said Vega. 

He said it is encouraging the governor has  identified the school funding overhaul as a priority.

         "As with any bill, the devil is in the details," said Vega.

The governor’s office said Baker’s proposed education funding increase will not require raising additional revenue.

There are tax increases for other purposes proposed by the governor. He wants a 15 percent tax on the gross receipts of pharmaceutical companies that sell opioids.

"The manufacturers had a lot to do with creating the crisis that we all are paying for everyday and creating a mechanism in which they put something in to help pay for the carnage they created I think is important," said Baker.

Baker has also called for doubling the state’s excise tax on real estate transfers to build up a fund to pay for projects to mitigate the impact of climate change.

He wants to legalize and tax sports betting.

 Baker signed a bill to tax short-term room rentals through websites such as Airbnb.  He also signed a new payroll tax to fund a paid family and medical leave program.

All this from someone who won a landslide re-election victory last year running on a no tax platform.

The record-setting tenure of Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno. The 2011 tornado and its recovery that remade the largest city in Western Massachusetts. The fallout from the deadly COVID outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers Home. Those are just a few of the thousands and thousands of stories WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief Paul Tuthill has covered for WAMC in his nearly 17 years with the station.
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