STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, FEB. 18, 2014…. With unfinished priorities for legislative leaders piling up, a key House Democrat on Tuesday said her Education Committee hopes to advance a bill this session to update the 2010 reform law that expanded access to charter schools, but said the measure would likely be limited in scope.
Rep. Alice Peisch, a Wellesley Democrat and the House chair of the Education Committee, told the News Service that no decisions have been made on what to include in the bill, but stressed that she was not looking to produce “Education Reform 3” this session.
“I’m hoping that we’ll be reporting something out that builds upon some of the successful aspects of the 2010 bill. I don’t anticipate it being huge changes. It’s more of adjustments to the 2010 bill so more students are able to access better education,” Peisch said.
For months, many in the education community have speculated on what the committee might produce this session, off-handedly referring to the effort in progress as the “Education Achievement Gap Act II,” a reference to the 2010 law expanding access to charter schools in poorly performing school districts and giving administrators in failing traditional public schools more authority over hiring, firing and curricula.
“We never had any ambition of a big reform bill this session. I think to the extent that some people may have been saying that, it was never the intent of the committee,” Peisch said.
Peisch previously suggested that she may be interested in revisiting the charter cap, particularly in underperforming districts like Boston and Holyoke that are bumping up against the limits, but on Tuesday said nothing was certain.
“We’re looking at a lot of things and we haven’t made any decisions yet so I hesitate to be any more specific than that,” Peisch said.
While a major education overhaul may not be in the offing this session, education advocates are preparing for what could be a major push next year when a new administration takes over. Already, gubernatorial candidates from both parties are putting education improvements near the top of their platforms, and several Democratic candidates for governor calling for longer school days and improved instruction to prepare students for the jobs of the future.
The Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education in November hired an outside group Brightlines, led by international expert Sir Michael Barber, to conduct a review of the Massachusetts education system and make recommendations on how to speed student improvement.
MBAE Executive Linda Noonan said that report is near complete and will be released on March 24, after which the organization is expected to engage lawmakers and gubernatorial candidates in a discussion about how best to move forward from the 1993 Education Reform Act and take the next leap to improve student preparation for college and the workforce.
“I think there’s a real appetite for exploring this,” Noonan said.
In the meantime, the Education Committee on Tuesday met to hear testimony on two bills, including a Sen. Stephen Brewer bill that would address a kink in the 1993 law’s funding formula that has dozens of municipalities staring at steep financial penalties and decisions about where to cut from local government to make required investments in education.
Brewer’s bill (S 1957) would protect school districts that don’t already count health care benefits for retired teachers toward their net school spending from being penalized in their allocation of state aid.
Rep. Todd Smola, a Palmer Republican, co-sponsored the Brewer bill and brought Palmer Town Manager Charlie Blanchard to Boston on Tuesday to testify before the committee.
Blanchard said Palmer was one of 127 municipalities that checked a box in 1993 when the Education Reform Act was first being implemented to not include retiree health care spending towards its net school spending total used as a baseline for state aid.
As retiree health care costs have ballooned over the past two decades, Blanchard said the town now faces a $600,000 penalty even though its contributions to retiree health care exceed the amount that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education considers Palmer to be deficient in its school spending.
Town officials from Taunton and Methuen shared similar stories with the Education Committee on Tuesday.
“I just think it’s unfair that communities can include it, but some can’t. Either let everyone do it, or no one at all,” said Taunton budget director Gill Enos.
Methuen Mayor Stephen Zanni said without legislative relief his city is facing a $1.6 million penalty and a possible Proposition 2 ½ override campaign to avoid gutting municipal services in order to come up with $5 million extra for the school department.
“For us it’s a monumental task. If this bill does not pass we’re going to be in some real financial difficulty,” Zanni said.
Rep. Diana DiZoglio, a Methuen Democrat, called the Brewer bill a matter of fairness to rectify a “serious flaw” in the Chapter 70 spending formula. “Now we have some communities paying and some communities not paying,” DiZoglio said.
Peisch, however, said the issue was more complicated than DiZoglio stated, and suggested communities that have been counting their retiree health care costs might take issue with the rules being changed for some to avoid penalties. Peisch said the committee would have to do more research to fully understand whether some communities received a benefit by not counting retiree costs up until now.
“It’s clearly something we need to address. How we address it remains to be seen,” Peisch said.
The Education Committee also heard testimony from Rep. Sean Garballey, of Arlington, on his bill (H 2993) to create a special commission to examine the status of the state’s school library services.
Copyright 2014 State House News Service