Senate changes weaken support for education bill

Senate changes chip away at broad support for Beacon Hill education bill
Posted on 10/06/2019
Senate changes chip away at broad support for Beacon Hill education bill

The sweeping education legislation unveiled last month by state lawmakers was remarkable, not just for its lofty aim but also its harmonious debut. Legislative leaders, parents, and teachers all praised the complicated, bicameral plan to overhaul the state’s decades-old school-funding formula.

But as debate shifts from the Senate to the House, that wide wall of support is showing fissures, pitting backers of tighter state oversight against teacher unions, and potentially complicating the bill’s seemingly clear path to Governor Charlie Baker’s desk.

The sudden dissension largely stems from an amendment senators passed last week as they unanimously approved the bill, reworking details of a measure designed to strengthen accountability of districts. Senators argued they were clarifying it. But critics, including Baker, say they weakened the bill. “We have always said, simply throwing money at the problem is not enough,” said Keri Rodrigues, founder of the advocacy group Massachusetts Parents United, which had praised the original bill. “The Senate disrupted the delicate balance that brought everyone in the education community together.”

The measure at the center of the renewed debate requires local officials to create publicly available three-year plans showing how they intend to close achievement gaps within their districts, including how state aid would be used. It was intended to provide a layer of transparency as the state pumps an additional $1.4 billion in direct aid into schools over the next seven years.

The bill’s original language required the state’s commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education to review each of the hundreds of plans districts would file, and it mandated that local officials amend any “deemed not in compliance.”

The union-backed Senate amendment, however, nixed the “compliance” language that supporters say gave the commissioner approval power and instead states the commissioner “may recommend” changes to the plans. Under the amendment, however, the commissioner would have the power to ensure that districts with underperforming or chronically underperforming schools produce plans that are “consistent” with broader state turnaround initiatives.

Another portion of the original bill, jointly announced last month by the powerful House speaker and Senate president, required districts to describe a particular set of “evidence-based programs” they planned to use. That, too, was changed, instead making the inclusion of certain programs optional.

The Senate also added language that explicitly ensured state officials could not withhold any direct local aid from districts.

The amendment easily cleared the Senate, 38-0, with the support of Republicans who were pushing a separate, and ultimately unsuccessful, amendment that would have toughened the language.

Senate Democrats defend the changes.

“It maintains every existing accountability measure,” said Senator Patricia D. Jehlen, a Somerville Democrat who helped draft the amendment’s language, including adding a requirement that districts weigh recommendations from parents in crafting the improvement plans.

She also defended the change around requiring the commissioner to review all plans, arguing that he “has his hands full” with overseeing districts with underperforming schools. “Really, it’s all about clarifying and strengthening local accountability,” she said.

Senator Jason M. Lewis, who helped craft the original bill as cochair of the Joint Committee on Education, backed the Senate change, arguing it stayed within the intent of the legislation both House and Senate committee members had signed off on before its release. He also suggested that some critics may be “parsing” language.

“We believe it’s not watering down that part of the bill,” the Winchester Democrat said. 

But it immediately stoked concerns with advocates who’ve pushed for greater accountability, including around how the new funds are spent.

“This is a walk-back,” Edward Lambert, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, said of the Senate language. “Taking away the ability of the commissioner to deem [a plan] not compliant and require changes, I think, is far more than a clarification.”

Liam Kerr, state director for Democrats for Education Reform, a pro-charter school organization, called the amendment an “abdication of oversight responsibility” and said he’s particularly concerned that the changes could undermine the “precarious compromise” among the chambers.

If the House passes a different version of the bill than the one approved by the Senate, lawmakers would have to iron out a compromise in a conference committee, a closed-door process often marked by protracted discussions.

Baker, who had pushed to give the state’s commissioner the ability to withhold some state aid from schools who were slow to make changes, also believes the Senate amendment “weakened” the proposed improvement plans, according to his office.

The second-term governor “believes strong accountability measures are essential to supporting underperforming schools,” Baker spokeswoman Anisha Chakrabarti said, adding that he hopes lawmakers will “consider additional accountability measures to ensure taxpayer dollars go toward helping children succeed.”

The changes enjoy wide support among the state’s powerful teacher unions, which have raised concerns that the original language — intentionally or not — vested too much power in the state. The new language, however, eliminates the provisions that would have tightened the state’s “bureaucratic hold on districts,” the Massachusetts Teachers Association argued in a post on its website.

“It gives control back to the people who know [their districts] best,” Merrie Najimy, the association’s president, said Friday.

How the changes will ultimately be received in the House is unclear. A spokeswoman for House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said that the chamber will review the amendments ahead of its own debate later this month. House leaders have yet to specify a date.

Representative Alice H. Peisch, House chair of the Education Committee, said in a statement that she, too, needs time to look over the changes. But she noted she supports the bill the committee originally released.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association, specifically, could face headwinds in lobbying House leadership after tensions between the two burst into public view during the spring.

DeLeo had accused the union of engaging in “juvenile tactics” in May after the union’s president posted a picture of herself and other women clutching at strings of fake pearls around their necks.

“Alice Peisch, let go of the wealth and #FundOurFuture,” the caption read.

Peisch is known to wear pearls. DeLeo criticized the union for engaging in “stunts.”

Asked Friday if she feared the dust-up could hinder the union’s push, Najimy said the bill isn’t about “hard feelings.”

“It’s not a personal fight,” she said. “It’s a fight for what’s right for our kids.”

Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com

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