Fair funding for the state’s public schools was a problem that was supposed to have been solved a generation ago.
In 1993, amid great fanfare the Legislature passed the Education Reform Act that completely revamped the state’s formula for funding school districts, ensuring, if not parity, then at least something resembling it.
By the time it was clear that the formula wasn’t working — that Massachusetts public schools remained stubbornly divided between predictable haves and equally predictable have-nots — the political will to attack the problem seemed to have dissipated. Inequality began to be described with adjectives like “intractable.”
But inequality isn’t intractable, or inevitable. The Legislature has taken a giant step toward addressing the problem with a deal on a $1.4 billion school funding bill. If signed into law by Governor Charlie Baker, it will pump desperately needed resources over a seven-year period into school districts that need more support.
The bill has been a heavy lift over several years. Year after year, the deal that could win support form various stakeholders proved elusive. Last year, a bill got as far as a House-Senate conference committee — after each chamber had passed different versions of it — before the chambers couldn’t reach a compromise.
Many legislators and advocates continued to fight for funding over the years. But one who won’t ever get the credit she deserves is Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz. She was the Senate chair of the Education Committee until this year.
Let’s not sugarcoat things here: Chang-Díaz took a lot of blame when the bill died last year, leading to her removal as chair of the Education Committee. But she never stopped advocating for a new formula. She was one of the people celebrating Tuesday, when victory finally seemed close at hand.
“This is going to be a game changer for low-income students and students of color in the state,” Chang-Díaz said. “We set the right goal in 1993 when we established the foundation budget into law. We just didn’t get the numbers right. We now know just how hard it is to get the numbers right.” (To be clear, 1993 was well before her time in on Beacon Hill.)
Passing any spending bill of this magnitude is a heavy lift. This was pushed over the past few years by a significant coalition of legislators, teachers unions, and community activists who never stopped building a movement. Even after the deal fell apart last year — and the end was ugly — reaching an agreement never felt impossible, because by then so many parties were invested in finding a solution.
The bill gives more money to districts with large concentrations of students in poverty and students of color. It also gives the state approval over how individual districts spend their newfound cash. That was one of the most contentious issues between the House and Senate, with the Senate pushing for less top-down control — a battle the House ultimately won in conference.
What was it like, I asked Chang-Díaz, to see the measure on which she spent years pass without being in the room negotiating for it?
“I don’t lament not being as involved,” she said. “I’ve been involved, just in a different role.”
If anything, inequality has only gotten worse since being identified as a major issue in the early ’90s. In Massachusetts, as elsewhere, the rich have gotten richer, while the rest of us have stagnated. Student achievement is a venue where those divides play out on a daily, often dramatic, basis.
One lesson to absorb from the state’s history with education reform is that solutions tend to get less effective over time. The crucial thing is maintaining the will, this time, to make equitable education a priority.
“As in the ’90s, there will be a tremendous amount of work for the Legislature and local stakeholders to do,” Chang-Díaz said. “And that will be the case for the next seven years.”
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