Sen. Hinds: Bill would update outdated education formula

Recorder Staff
Friday, May 11, 2018

With unanimous Massachusetts Senate passage of what state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, describes as “a key education reform bill to update the state’s 25-year-old funding formula,” eyes turn to how that’s incorporated into the budget for the year that begins July 1.

The formula revision, co-sponsored by 36 senators, including Hinds, would implement recommendations of the bipartisan Foundation Budget Review Commission in late 2015, which found that the state’s foundation budget formula drastically underestimates education costs. The result, according to Hinds, is deep cuts to classrooms and critical programs, and one of the worst achievement gaps in the nation.

The formula, originally set in the 1993 Education Reform Act, has failed to keep up with rising fixed costs like health care and special education, which have outpaced initial estimates, Hinds noted, and it also underestimated the cost of teaching students who are learning English and those living in poverty. It’s a gap in Chapter 70 education aid that approaches $2 billion a year, according to Hinds, pointing out that the next step — assuming the House agrees — is to provide the money in its annual budget.

“Implementation of these recommendations will deeply impact all schools as they spend money in key areas that the state must support, especially in health care, special education, on children living in poverty and English learners,” said Hinds.

During Thursday’s debate, Hinds sponsored, but later withdrew, a “rural school aid” amendment to the bill to establish a new line of funding to help meet the challenges faced by rural school districts.

The “sparsity aid” amendment was based on the findings of a January report on the Fiscal Conditions in Rural School Districts by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and bolstered by a study released by the state auditor that called for major updates in the structure and finance of regional school districts.

The DESE report concluded that rural schools in the state spend 50 percent more on school transportation, spending more per pupil in teaching and paraprofessional because of enrollments that are declining. The proposed formula, affecting 62 school districts at a cost of about $3 million, would provide additional funding for school districts with enrollment of fewer than 21 students per square mile and per capita income that is below the state average.

After explaining the need for a new formula for rural districts, based on student density per square mile of a school district; and the average per capita income of a district, Hinds conferred with leadership and colleagues and decided to withdraw the amendment to assure that the foundation budget reform passes.

“Making a statement that we’re implementing those recommendations of the Foundation Review Commission was incredibly important,” said Hinds. “Strategically, the budget became the better place. We’ve had strong allies across the commonwealth” for the rural formula, including Sens. Anne Gobi, D-Spencer, Julian Cyr, D-Truro, and Don Humason Jr., R-Westfield.

The senator, whose 52-town district includes nine Franklin County towns, plans to re-introduce it as an amendment as part of the Senate’s upcoming budget process later this month. He noted that this would have been easier before the resignation by Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, who was a strong supporter.

An annual general appropriation would be necessary to fund the proposed new policy, which grew out of reforms advocated by Mohawk Trail Regional School District Superintendent Michael Buoniconti.

Budgeting for both the foundation and sparsity aid formulas would have to be reconciled with the House in the conference committee process, which settles differences between the two chambers’ version of the budget.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee also proposed funding Chapter 70 at $4.91 billion, allowing for a minimum aid increase of at least $30 per pupil, as well as $318.9 million for the Special Education Circuit Breaker, and $62.5 million for regional school transportation as part of its $41.42 billion package, State House New Service reported.