The House last night unanimously approved a $1.5 billion multiyear school finance bill that is similar to what the Senate passed unanimously earlier this month.

Both bills stayed close to a consensus bill announced in September by House and Senate leaders. The main difference between House and Senate versions comes in the degree of authority granted to the state education commissioner to ensure that locally developed plans for closing student achievement gaps are consistent with state-set targets.

Education Committee House Chair Alice Peisch told the State House News Service that investments to support low-income students and English learners are a focal point of the bill, which she called “a massive step toward a more equitable funding structure.”

Both branches are hopeful that the differences can be reconciled quickly and a final bill can be sent to the governor before formal legislative sessions end on Nov. 20. If a bill is enacted this year, a new Chapter 70 school finance schedule for calculating local contribution and school aid amounts could be in place for the fiscal 2021 state budget process, including the recommendation to be filed by the governor in January.

The simulation of the possible local impact of the Legislature’s Chapter 70 proposal released by the governor last month was the only district-level analysis publicly available as debate on the bill wrapped up. Municipal and school officials have been able to find out the local impact by contacting their legislators.

Seventy amendments were filed for debate in the House, and most were rejected or withdrawn, including an MMA-supported amendment to increase the minimum new school aid floor to $50 per student.

The House declined to take up an amendment that would establish a special commission to study the fiscal impacts of the way that charter schools are financed and administered. In a letter to House members, the MMA argued that the current charter system financially harms cities, towns and school districts, lacks transparency and accountability, and needs serious review and reform.

The House, like the Senate, did include a provision that would establish a rural schools commission to study the financial health of rural districts.

The House’s language on achievement gap plans is consistent with the consensus bill released by legislative leaders from both branches on Sept. 19. The House bill would give the education commissioner authority to require local districts to amend plans deemed not consistent with the state plan. The Senate bill, changed by amendment during debate, would authorize the commissioner to make recommendations to local districts, but would not require amendments. This provision was advanced as a way to make sure that districts that benefit more from additional school aid due to high concentrations of low-income students use those funds to improve education for students at risk of underachievement.

In a letter to the House before debate started, the MMA stated its support for the bill, known as the Student Opportunity Act, and urged legislators to enact a final bill before formal sessions end in November so that it can be in place for the fiscal 2021 state budget.

The MMA’s letter noted that, as a member of the Foundation Budget Review Commission, the MMA supported updating the foundation factors that significantly undercounted basic education costs, particularly in the areas of special education, school employee health insurance, and educational programs for low-income and English learner students.

The House and Senate bills would update factors in Chapter 70’s foundation budget spending standard consistent with the 2015 recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission. The changes would be implemented over a seven-year period. The bills would also increase foundation rates for guidance and psychological services to support expanded social-emotional supports and mental health services.

The bill would establish in Chapter 70 a floor for the minimum annual aid increase at $30 per student. This amount is now set each year as part of the state budget process; it is $30 this year. Many school districts fall into this “minimum aid” category.

The proposed changes to the foundation budget would affect Chapter 70 education aid and local contribution amounts across the state. The impact of the bill would vary across different types of districts, resulting in substantial aid increases for some, while a number of districts would remain in the minimum aid category. The changes would also affect the minimum municipal contribution in some cities and towns, and could have an impact on assessments used to pay tuition to charter schools.

The bill would change the special education circuit breaker program to allow reimbursement for transportation costs. It would set a schedule to provide additional funds for charter school impact reimbursements, subject to state appropriation, and would lift the cap on spending through the School Building Assistance program.

Written by