Amherst resolution criticizing Boston-based business groups’ education aid ideas gets push-back

AMHERST – A joint resolution of the town council and local school committee – approved unanimously this week – opposing some of what two Boston-based business advocacy groups propose, to make state Chapter 70 education aid disbursement “equitable,” is getting push-back from the business groups.

Amherst officials say the proposals, if enacted, would wreck their school system with the loss of millions of dollars in state education aid; the business groups say those fears are overblown and the town’s reduction in state aid would only be a fraction of what they claim.

At issue is a report Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education must submit to the legislature by Dec. 1.

This is a requirement of the Student Opportunity Act approved by legislature and signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker last year.

The DESE is now seeking public comment, through Oct. 16, to assist the agency in writing this report.

The Student Opportunity Act at “Section 21 requires DESE and DLS to submit a report to the General Court on ‘the equity, predictability and accuracy of the method of determining each municipality’s ability to contribute toward education funding and the calculation of each municipality’s required local contribution’. We are seeking public comment on these topics,” the agency says. DLS refers to the Department of Revenue Division of Local Services.

The business groups and Amherst have already submitted comments to the DESE.

This is the first year state education officials that administer the Chapter 70 funding formula begin to apply some of the Student Opportunity Act provisions. The state budget for this fiscal year that began July 1 has yet to be approved, partly due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The newness of the Student Opportunity Act is why the DESE must submit this report – and is seeking public comment, as a means for the legislature to conduct oversight of the new law.

Calculating education aid is complex owing to various and sundry financial conditions among the 351 cities and towns in the state; each community’s ability to pay for kindergarten through grade 12 public education varies.

Each year the state assigns each school district an amount it must pay to provide adequate education, called a Foundation Budget.

The Chapter 70 funding, premised on a district’s ability to pay, uses an elaborate – many say complicated – wealth-based formula to determine Foundation Budget.

The formula includes financial factors and student enrollment criteria.

It has a “hold harmless” provision, meaning Chapter 70 dollar amounts cannot be reduced, from the previous year’s state allotment – even if enrollment is declining – as is the case across a wide swath of rural districts in western Mass.

“Amherst, Pelham and Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools and the Amherst Select Board originally supported the Student Opportunity Act, but with the elimination of the Hold Harmless provision, we would lose more than $8M or approximately 14% of our combined budgets, which we cannot support,” the joint resolution of Amherst Town Council and the school boards says.

The resolution is addressed to Baker and other top state officials.

Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and the Boston-based Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, in a report last month said Hold Harmless is bad public policy. The Alliance includes members in Springfield and Worcester.

“A needs-based Chapter 70 aid formula would match a community’s required local contribution to the  amount the community can afford to pay from local resources. A fully needs-based Chapter 70 aid formula would not include several needs-blind formula factors, such as the hold-harmless provision,” their study said.

After The Republican published a story last week reporting on Amherst’s concerns, the Business Alliance sent a statement to the newspaper saying:

“Our report does not propose eliminating $8 million in state education aid to the Amherst and Amherst Pelham school districts.  The total amount of ‘needs-blind’ aid that the two school districts together get is equal to about $7.8 million, but our report does not say that should all be immediately eliminated.

“The proposal we put forth for addressing the issues highlighted in our report could result in the loss of about $275,000 in state education aid to the two school districts. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean a reduction in district revenue. That depends on how the towns that send students to the districts respond. Both school districts already receive significantly more resources than required from the towns they serve, and the towns could decide to make that up with local resources.

“Our report does not recommend or imply less spending in Amherst and Amherst-Pelham; it addresses only how much the state should be contributing. The two districts collectively budgeted $18.7 million beyond required spending in FY20. This level of spending reflects both commitment and capacity to fund schools. But it is not possible in many districts, rural and urban alike, equally committed to their students.”

On Friday, state Sen. Jo Comerford lauded Amherst’s efforts to “quickly respond” to the business groups.

She said that although she agrees with some of the business groups’ advocacy, the senator said that on the Hold Harmless matter, they are wrong.

The debate “should be about how we fund our schools,” Comerford said in a telephone interview.

“Western Massachusetts disproportionately pays a greater percentage of what the DESE says they should than, generally, our eastern Massachusetts counterparts,” she said. Amherst “was right to speak out.”

In 2015, the DESE published a report titled, Massachusetts State Equity Plan 2015-2019 that said the single biggest factor in unequal learning outcomes owed to school administrators and teachers lacking requisite skills.

The report said this was most acute in poorer districts and schools with large proportions of minority students.

The report, updated in 2017, states: “In Massachusetts, students who are economically disadvantaged, students of color, English Learners, and students with disabilities are more likely than their peers to be assigned to teacher and principals who are inexperienced, teaching out of field, and/or lower rated. These student groups also experience gaps in educational attainment across multiple measures, such as state assessment performance levels and graduation rates. The root causes of these educational gaps are complex.”

It said, “a key root cause: lower rates of access to experienced, in-field and highly rated educators. As research routinely shows, teachers and principals are the in-school factors with the greatest influence on students’ academic and post-academic success.”

When the business group’s report was released last month, Ed Lambert, executive director of the Business Alliance, in a press release said: “Equitable access to resources is an essential component of closing equity and opportunity gaps. It is critical, particularly in this economic climate, that we redirect state dollars to communities serving students that need them the most.”

The Greater Boston Chamber and the Business Alliance full report, titled Missing the Mark: How Chapter 70 Education Aid Distribution Benefits Wealthier School Districts and Widens Equity Gaps can be found on the Boston chamber’s website.

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