$1.5 Billion, Seven-Year Education Bill Will Have ‘Tremendous Impact’ for Haverhill Families: Vargas

Senate President Karen Spilka (left) Education Committee Co-Chairs Sen. Jason Lewis and Rep. Alice Peisch, and House Speaker Robert DeLeo unveiled their education funding reform bill in the State Library on Sept. 19, 2019. (Courtesy photograph/Sam Doran, SHNS)

Haverhill students are among those poised to benefit from a new $1.5 billion consensus school finance reform bill that House and Senate leaders rolled out Thursday that’s expected to hit the Senate floor in two weeks.

Rep. Alice Pesich and Sen. Jason Lewis, the co-chairs of the Education Committee that has been working for months to develop the legislation, said a focus of the bill is providing resources to low-income students.

“I think it’s fair to say that if this bill passes into law, we will have the strongest and most progressive education funding system in terms of how we reflect the needs of low-income students,” Lewis, a Winchester Democrat, said, according to the State House News Service.

The bill, dubbed the Student Opportunity Act and unanimously endorsed by the Education Committee Thursday, would increase Chapter 70 aid to local schools by $1.4 billion, and House Speaker Robert DeLeo said it does not involve plans for additional taxes.

All students in the state will see some benefit from the bill, Peisch said, though the school funding formula has always been intended to give more state aid to districts with greater need.

Haverhill state Rep. Andy Vargas, who sits on the Joint Committee on Education and the House Committee on Ways and Means, predicts the bill will have a “tremendous” impact on city families.

“The bill…provides districts with the highest percentages of low-income students, with the greatest increases in education funding. This will have a tremendous impact for Haverhill families. I’m grateful for the teachers, students, and parents that have been organizing and demonstrating the power of civic engagement,” Vargas tells WHAV.

The bill uses Group Insurance Commission data to estimate districts’ employee and retiree health care costs; increases special education enrollment and cost assumptions; increases funding for English language learners and differentiates that money by grade level, with more for older students; and provides additional money based on the percentage of low-income students in a district. It also returns to an older definition of low-income students that was used in past years: 185 percent of the federal poverty level.

In addition to its funding changes, the bill establishes a commission to investigate the challenges facing rural schools and tasks state officials with analyzing the ways local contributions are determined in the Chapter 70 formula.

It creates a “21st Century Education Trust Fund” to support schools and districts pursuing innovative approaches to learning, increases the Massachusetts School Building Authority’s annual spending cap to allow more school construction projects into the pipeline, sets up a three-year timeline to fully fund charter school tuition reimbursements, and expands a special education reimbursement program known as the circuit breaker to include transportation costs.

School districts would be required, under the bill, to set targets for closing persistent achievement gaps and make plans publicly available on how they will spend the money targeted for English learners and low-income students, Lewis said.

The bill will go first to the Senate, and Lewis said a vote is tentatively planned to take place in two weeks after vetting by the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

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