Gov. Charlie Baker is urging the voice of the business community in Massachusetts to be heard in the current debate over school finance reform.
Addressing a group of business and community leaders in Springfield Tuesday, the Republican governor highlighted legislation he has filed that would update the formula for funding local schools and includes other reforms Baker said are necessary to close achievement gaps.
"Now is the time," said Baker. "Now is the time to engage in this discussion. Now is the time to engage in the debate."
Legislation Baker filed in January would phase in changes over seven years and result in a $1.1 billion increase in education spending.
Critics say Baker’s plan lacks urgency. Other bills have been filed that would increase state financial assistance over a shorter period of time.
There’s general consensus the school funding formula, which has not changed since 1993, needs to be updated. A study found schools are being shortchanged for the actual costs of health care and educating students with special needs and those who do not speak English.
Overall, public education in Massachusetts ranks high in any number of measurements, but schools in poorer urban areas lag far behind when it comes to student proficiency. School officials in Brockton and Worcester recently renewed threats to sue the state for more money.
But Baker said there is more to the education reform debate than “how much” and “how fast.” He said new accountability measures have to be part of a comprehensive bill.
" The one thing that is pretty clear: if you just keep doing what you've always been doing it is probably not going to get you there," said Baker speaking with reporters.
His legislation would give the education commissioner discretion to allocate additional money to underperforming schools from a $50 million fund.
Baker, who was a proponent of expanding charter schools until voters rejected the idea, wants school systems statewide to be able to adopt Springfield’s “empowerment zone” model where schools are managed by a public-private partnership.
The governor said he thinks the chances are “quite good” that an education reform bill will pass the legislature before the current two-year session ends.
"I think at this point it is just a question of finding a way to get to 'yes', so I think it is going to happen," Baker said.
Baker’s appearance in Springfield was at an event at the Basketball Hall of Fame hosted by Springfield Business Leaders for Education. It is an organization of about 50 owners of Springfield-based businesses, who meet regularly to discuss education policy and how to improve the city’s public schools.
Mary Walachy, the coordinator for the business group, said they don’t want Beacon Hill to write a blank check to schools.
"That with that funding there is a requirement or a process that districts across the state have a plan- what will they do with this new money and how will they be held accountable for improvements associated with the new money?" said Walachy.
A Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll published Tuesday showed a majority of Massachusetts voters are willing to pay higher taxes to give more money to low-performing schools.