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Deal On Education Funding Still Elusive As Lawmakers Recess

BOSTON (AP) — By the time the Massachusetts Legislature resumes formal sessions in September, students will be back in class while the state's 26-year-old education funding formula remains in place, despite the seemingly broad and bipartisan agreement that it must be revamped to better address the needs of low-income, immigrant and special needs students.

Lawmakers broke for August recess Thursday with bills to update the formula still stuck in the Education Committee, frustrating advocates who had hoped that years of discussion would finally produce a breakthrough before school starts.

A 2015 report from a special commission found that under the present system, school districts were being underfunded by $1 billion to $2 billion annually. Bearing the brunt of that shortfall were low-income and minority students, along with those learning to speak English and children with special needs. The report also cited massive increases in health insurance costs for school districts since the formula known as the foundation budget was enacted in 1993.

The result: An ever-widening gap between the rich and poor in academic performance, advocates say.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo said legislators were "working diligently" and that a resolution could be at hand by the end of the calendar year. Those pressing hardest for change weren't satisfied with that explanation.

"At what point does 'we're working on it' become justice delayed and denied?" asked Democratic Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, of Boston, in a statement. "The Legislature has had nearly four years to consider the recommendations — that's half a kid's elementary school years. There's no good reason that students will go back to school with no foundation funding plan in place."

Chang-Diaz is the lead Senate sponsor of a bill dubbed the "promise act," which would overhaul the formula over a 5-year period at a cost of up to $2 billion. As the former Senate chair of the education panel, Chang-Diaz led negotiations with the House a year ago that appeared on the verge of a breakthrough before collapsing in the final hours of the legislative session.

Sen. Jason Lewis, a Winchester Democrat, has since replaced Chang-Diaz as chair and is continuing private talks with his House counterpart, Democratic Rep. Alice Peisch, of Wellesley.

Adding to pressure on lawmakers is a lawsuit filed in June by parents and several organizations, including the Boston NAACP, which asks the state's highest court to declare that students in underfunded school districts are being deprived of their right to an equal education. Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, charged lawmakers were being "indifferent, unresponsive and willfully blind" to educational disparities, something state leaders have vigorously denied.

Money itself doesn't appear to be an overwhelming obstacle to reaching an agreement. In fact, the annual state budget approved by the Democratic-controlled Legislature and signed Wednesday by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker increased state funding for public schools by $268 million, bringing total aid to a record $5.2 billion. The additional funding was originally billed as a down payment on the first year of reform and is being cheered by many advocates even as they bemoan the lack of progress in reforming how the cash gets distributed.

Rather, Baker and others have suggested the delay likely stems from parochial concerns over how changes in the formula might affect individual cities and towns, from urban centers with large concentrations of minority students to wealthier suburbs and rural areas of the state.

Word on Monday that the bill would not surface before the summer break drew condemnation all the way to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, where the New England Patriots are preparing for another NFL season. The team tweeted out a photo of Devin McCourty, Jason McCourty and Duron Harmon arriving at practice on Tuesday wearing "Fund Our Future" tee shirts like those often donned by backers of the legislation at Statehouse rallies.

The three players and teammate Matthew Slater spent considerable time during the offseason lending their voices to the effort and lobbying legislators.

"Massachusetts schools are losing out on more than $1 billion a year while the committee continues to sit on solutions to this problem. This waiting game is directly harming low-income students & students of color. Massachusetts, we have to do better," the McCourty brothers wrote in another tweet.

Baker, who in January filed his own seven-year, $1.1 billion plan overhaul plan, ironically was among the few coming to the defense of Democratic legislative leaders this past week despite his own stated desire to make changes before the school year.

"I think people don't give the legislature credit for how difficult it is to change the formula," the Republican said. "You're talking about something where every single member has a series of communities that they represent and that they're concerned about with respect to what happens anytime you change or adjust the formula."

Baker then added he was "completely, utterly and totally confident," a compromise would emerge by the end of the current session.

(© Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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