Published Online: October 13, 1993

Funding Doubts Push Mass. Reforms to New Session

Despite an intensive effort to get a comprehensive education-reform bill passed before a new legislature convenes, Massachusetts legislative leaders last week postponed debate on the latest version of the bill until the end of the month.

Lawmakers had until midnight last Tuesday to act on the measure. But many members apparently were unwilling to back a bill that left them in the dark on the level of funding for their local schools until virtually the last minute.

The new funding formula, which had been revised anew only days before the session ended, was so complicated that it took some 20 pages to describe. Observers said that Rep. Mark Roosevelt, the chairman of the joint education committee, had not released by early last week the revised numbers showing what each school district would receive.

"The big stumbling block was the complexity of the proposed funding formula,'' said Robert J. Murphy, the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. "For most of the legislators, particularly with the waning hours, it was difficult to deal with it.''

Mr. Roosevelt and other key writers of the bill had scrambled to come up with a new formula after some lawmakers balked at the previous set of figures.

Seeking a Winning Formula

Many of their constituents--chief among them, Mayor Raymond Flynn of Boston--had complained that there was little or no additional financial help for their districts.

Data released by the Executive Office of Education showed that the only new money more than a third of the districts would have received under the bill was a $50-per-pupil payment reserved for professional-development programs.

Under the latest proposal, districts were expected to be given more discretion with additional funds.

The latest plan also retains many of the earlier provisions that participants have been hammering out for nearly two years. They include changes in labor-management relations and the governance structure and the establishment of a statewide per-pupil foundation budget. (See Education Week, Dec. 2, 1992.)

Few members of the education community embraced the plan wholeheartedly.

"Every group to one degree or another would like to see something changed,'' said Paul H. Gorden, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.

For example, both the M.T.A. and the school committees' association are bothered by a new provision that gives municipal governing bodies the right to approve collective-bargaining agreements.

Mr. Gorden also said he was concerned that the legislation does not provide a dedicated source of funding, such as a designated portion of sales-tax revenues. Previous reform bills in Massachusetts were stymied when money dried up for the programs.

Still, both Mr. Gorden and Mr. Murphy and most educators said they could live with the overall plan or could do so with some modification.

Lobbying for Action

In the weeks before the end of the session, members of the education community and others who were involved in negotiating a reform package lobbied intensely to get it passed.

John C. Rennie, the chairman of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, mailed letters urging his colleagues to persuade lawmakers to pass the bill.

"It is vital that the bill be passed this year with few, if any, amendments to change its balance and character,'' Mr. Rennie wrote.

"If it is delayed into 1993, there is considerable doubt as to the ability of its proponents to obtain the necessary funding for FY 1994,'' Mr. Rennie continued. "In addition, organizational changes [in the legislature] will almost certainly delay passage until late spring, if then; this will create undue confusion during FY 1994 school budgeting and allow insufficient time to begin reform implementation before schools open in September 1993.''

For its part, the state board of education called a special meeting to endorse the legislation and sent a letter to lawmakers urging them to act.

Then last Monday, the state board held a meeting at the Statehouse at which Gov. William F. Weld said education reform was his top priority.

The sense of urgency was heightened after the Governor indicated that he would not add new school money to his fiscal 1994 budget request without reform legislation.

In the end, though, the bill became loaded down with proposed amendments--150 by some counts--and Speaker of the House Charles F. Flaherty announced that the bill would not be debated until Jan. 25.

The debate is slated to begin shortly before the start of a finance-equity trial, which some observers believe will hasten legislative action.

Choice Expansion Backed

But there are still some major issues to be resolved, primarily the matter of school choice.

President of the Senate William M. Bulger wants education reform to include a statewide program of public school choice. The current plan is limited and permits districts to choose whether to participate.

Mr. Bulger last month also was successful in getting lawmakers to take a step toward an even more expansive version of school choice by agreeing to strip the state constitution of language barring aid to private and parochial schools. The new legislature must again approve the amendment before it goes to the voters for ratification in 1994.

Another question concerns the impact of the new partisan balance in the legislature.

Democrats picked up six Senate seats in the November elections. As a result, Mr. Weld, a Republican who opposes raising taxes or tampering with a property-tax cap to fund education, will lose his veto-sustaining power in the Senate.

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