Sen. Lewis eyes ‘broad consensus’ on education bill

  • Activists with Fund Our Future lined the corridor outside Education Committee Co-chairwoman Rep. Alice Peisch’s office Thursday while campaign leaders talked with staff inside. shns photo

Published: 5/16/2019 8:55:30 PM
Modified: 5/16/2019 8:55:19 PM

Lawmakers on the Education Committee are aiming to put forward a bill next month overhauling the state’s school funding formula, the panel’s Senate chair said Thursday as teachers, students and other advocates descended on the State House to continue the push for reform.

The committee held a hearing in March on various proposals to rework the formula, and advocates have been keeping the pressure on legislators to pass a bill this year.

Bills before the committee respond to a problem laid out by a state commission in 2015: the current formula underestimates the cost of education by $1 billion or more annually by inadequately accounting for expenses associated with employee health care, special education and teaching students who are learning English or come from low-income families.

“We’re targeting June to have that legislation ready to release and we anticipate that bill will fully implement the recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission,” Sen. Jason Lewis told the News Service.

Lewis, a Winchester Democrat, said the panel he co-chairs with Wellesley Rep. Alice Peisch has been traveling to visit school districts “all around the state” and get feedback from educators, students and parents. The lawmakers are continuing to meet with stakeholders, he said.

“We’re working very collaboratively between the House and the Senate on the legislation within the Education Committee, and so definitely our hope is that the bill we would release from the Education Committee would be one that already has broad consensus,” he said. “That legislation would then obviously have to be debated in the House and the Senate.”

Lewis was among a handful of legislators – others included Sens. Jamie Eldridge and John Keenan and Reps. Joan Meschino and Paul Donato – who stopped by a “people’s hearing” Thursday hosted by the Fund Our Future campaign, which backs bills calling for additional state funding for public K-12 and higher education.

The campaign held a day of action on Beacon Hill, culminating with a 5 p.m. rally on Boston Common at which thousands of people were expected. Overlapping rallies were planned in Springfield and Pittsfield.

At the hearing, teachers and students described their experiences to an actor portraying President John Adams – the chief architect of the Massachusetts Constitution, which calls for the state to “cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them; especially the university at Cambridge, public schools and grammar schools in the towns.”

Lynn Teachers Union President Sheila O’Neil said the average age of school buildings in her city is 82 years. One elementary school, she said, is 169 years old.

As she discussed one school’s fence to keep students away from falling bricks, she placed a hardhat on her head and a man in an American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts T-shirt wrapped caution tape around her.

Another teacher, Zena Link, said she had worked in a financially strapped district where teachers received one box of supplies – one pack of paper, one pair of scissors, one stapler and one tape dispenser – intended to last them the whole year, with everything else coming “out of the educator’s pocket.” Now, in a wealthier district, she finds herself giving away “thousands of dollars and supplies and things I have left, because I don’t need them.”

“The education gap is actually a funding gap,” Link said. “It’s a resource gap, and it’s a gap in our ability to seek empathy and acknowledge that we are creating a system, a two-tiered system.”

The day also featured an interfaith prayer service led by clergy members, and a march in which participants delivered to Gov. Charlie Baker, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka books of hundreds of letters written by teachers asking for funding reform.

“We have seen a drop in funding and over the last few years we have lost a librarian, technology teacher and full time nurse,” wrote Rebecca Jontos, a music teacher at Fall River’s Alfred S. Letourneau Elementary School. “We have no chorus program which would allow any student to participate in a music ensemble without the added cost of an instrument. We need these important services and support for our students.”

Tom Donington, a history and ESL teacher at Worcester’s Burncoat High School, said he works in a building that is “falling apart” and receives no pay for running an outdoor adventure program or the mock trial team. His school shares a nurse, who is not located in their building, he said.

“We are chronically understaffed in all areas. We have been squeezed on all fronts in our district, & we need to reverse austerity,” Donington wrote.

The House and Senate last year each passed separate education funding reform plans, but lawmakers could not reconcile the two bills.

“We are really trying to make sure we’re working very closely between the House and the Senate as well as with the administration because we’re very aware of what happened last session and the fact that we weren’t able to get this legislation done and we want to make sure that we get it done this year, because we do feel a sense of urgency because of the reasons that we’re hearing today from our students and our teachers and parents,” Lewis said.

At the same time three members of the New England Patriots were speaking at the State House in support of a funding reform bill filed by Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz on Wednesday, Speaker DeLeo was leaving a celebration of new law lifting a cap on child welfare benefits.

While DeLeo said it would be nice if the House and Senate were working off the same script, the speaker said it was not necessary that a deal be reached before bills move to the floor in both branches.

“Not necessarily, as long as we can get something to move forward,” he said. “If we have to get into conference. That’s OK too. But as long as we get something moving.”

DeLeo told the News Service he wasn’t sure when the Education Committee would conclude its review of the funding formula.

“I’m not sure. I know that both chairs are both talking, so I think that’s good. I think there’s a feeling that both want to get something done. But in terms of timing, I’m not sure. But I think I would like to do it hopefully this year,” he said.

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