Our Opinion: Encouraging signs on state funding of education

The early word on state education funding for the coming fiscal year is encouraging, which offers cause for some optimism among Berkshire school districts struggling to come up with their own budgets. That progress must be sustained not only through the budget process but in the long term.

The House budget released on Monday adds $15 million to the $91 million increase to the Chapter 70 education budget offered by Governor Baker, and if approved at that level, would increase education funding by an average of $30 per student in the state's 322 school districts. The House budget also calls for hikes in funding for special education and for regional transportation — the latter an area Beacon Hill has routinely fallen short of funding fully, to the detriment of large geographic districts in the Berkshires. The $4.7 billion education budget offered by the House would constitute an all-time high.

That increase, however, comes in the context of the Foundation Budget Review Commission report of 2015 that found the current budget formula used to determine school funding underestimates the cost of education by $1 billion to $2 billion a year. The commission asserted that the state was failing to account for rising fixed costs in health care and special education. The sobering report went largely undisputed by legislators, who must confront the harsh realities of closing such a gap.

Also on Monday, state Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Boston Democrat, filed a bill calling for an increase of approximately $200 million in the coming year. Acknowledging to the State House News Service that "you can't just flip a switch and turn on $2 billion," the senator said she hoped the Senate would propose addressing the gap with a long-range spending program over five to 10 years. The Senate established a seven-year schedule to dramatically increase funding last year but the bill did not emerge from conference committee.

Chapter 70 and local property taxes account for almost all of the funding for the state's public schools, and Berkshire towns confronting losses of jobs and population find it difficult to justify burdening residents with further increases in property taxes. The state confronts its own budget problems, but if the state is going to pass along educational mandates, largely through testing requirements, to districts it is obligated financially to assist the towns funding those districts.

The governor and the House have demonstrated through their budget proposals that they take this responsibility seriously. The Senate may not go as high as the $200 million proposed by state Senator Chang-Diaz but it is likely given recent history that the Senate will go above the $106 million offered by the House. Funding of schools constitutes funding of the state itself by building a workforce that in turn provides stability for business and industry, which is why business leaders have been joining political leaders in advocating more funding.

While expressing approval of the House budget, Geoff Beckwith, the executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, told the State House News Service that "the fundamental education funding debate has not been resolved..." That debate centers largely around reliance on the property tax, which enables towns and districts with large tax bases to provide more opportunities to students than do towns and districts without that economic foundation. This in turn motivates students to choice out of struggling districts, accentuating their funding problems when state money follows the students elsewhere.

This dilemma can in part be addressed by increased state funding passed equitably around the state. Lawmakers in the House have stepped up and ideally the state Senate will further up the ante.


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