As activists press, Education Sec says state “trying to do the best we can”

Marcony Almeida

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A group of parents and advocates making their case for revamping the state’s school funding system on Monday nearly crossed paths with a top education official on his way to a budget office meeting, according to the State House News Service. Members of Stand for Children Massachusetts delivered more than 1,700 letters to Gov. Charlie Baker, asking for what the group described as a more equitable school funding formula that would address rising and uncovered costs related to health care, English language learners and special education.

As the advocates stood outside Baker’s third floor office discussing their request, Education Secretary James Peyser passed behind them, headed for the Executive Office of Administration and Finance. Peyser did not stop and talk with the group, telling reporters as he walked by that he was late for a meeting. “We’re in the middle of budget season,” Peyser said. “We’re obviously looking at everything and trying to do the best we can.”

In November, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted on fiscal 2020 budget priorities, recommending to Peyser that education aid be funded “at the highest level possible based on available revenues” and that special education account funding “be at a level as close to the maximum 75 percent reimbursement level as state revenue permits.” After the state’s contribution to foundation education aid is met, the board recommended that any additional aid “be directed to districts with identified achievement gaps in student learning, to support reforms that have evidence of narrowing achievement gaps.”

Debate in the new legislative session is likely over whether to raise taxes or revenues to make more funding available for education. An income surtax on higher earners failed to reach the ballot this year and Beacon Hill Democrats who supported that revenue plan are searching for new ways to raise revenue.

In his Nov. 29 memo to Peyser, Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley gave voice to both using “available revenues” and the “fiscal reality that all executive branch agencies face in working to produce a budget for the next fiscal year,” while saying “as in the past, the Board recognizes the need to advocate for levels of local education aid needed to promote and sustain high quality public schools.”

Lawmakers this year failed to reach agreement on legislation to steer more money into schools by revising the state’s 25-year-old school funding formula, an update Springfield parent Audrey Cunningham said Monday was “way overdue.”

Both branches passed education funding bills, but Democrat-controlled conference committee talks bogged down in late July. Stand For Children officials said the state needs to pass a bill “that allows more spending to alleviate overcrowding, cover increasing costs and provide funds to dramatically boost early literacy and help students remain on track and graduate.” The group wants a funding bill that would “give school districts in underserved communities the same advantages as children in the state’s higher-income cities and towns.”

Cunningham said she’d also like to see Baker “go to the schools and see for himself what’s needed, talk to the parents, talk to the students, talk to teachers.”

“I believe that all children deserve to get the best education possible, and the schools need support,” she said. “Some schools have no lunchrooms, they need air-conditioning, after-school program, and our children are suffering. Without these tools, they cannot succeed in school.”

Peyser said last month that education officials would look at recommendations from various sources “to see how we can improve the formula to ensure greater equity and ensure that the lowest-performing districts, the highest-need districts, are getting the resources they need in a sustainable way over time.”

“But then beyond that, there are issues both funding-related and non-funding-related about ensuring that we’re spending these dollars well, because at the end of the day, how much money we have, how much money we spend is important, but not as important as how well we spend it,” he said then

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