By Katie Lannan
Courtesy State House News Service

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, DEC. 13, 2018…..The Massachusetts Teachers Association is pushing lawmakers to increase state funding for public education by more than $1.5 billion a year by May 1, a campaign the union’s board unanimously threw its support behind on Saturday.

“For far too long, the state has underfunded public education,” union vice president Max Page said in a video on the MTA’s Facebook page. “The Fund our Future campaign is our chance to make sure that every student in the commonwealth gets the public education that they deserve.”

The campaign’s goal is to pass by May 1 legislation that would increase state funding for public higher education by $500 million and public prekindergarten through grade 12 schools by $1 billion, Page and MTA President Merrie Najimy wrote in an email to members Monday.

“By speaking to friends and relatives and taking part in campaign activities, MTA members were highly instrumental in winning the 2016 No on 2 campaign against lifting the cap on charter schools. We can win this campaign as well if we put the same effort and energy into showing the state what we are for as we showed what we are against,” they wrote.

The message asks members to sign a petition, urge their school committee or board of trustees to pass a resolution supporting the funding increase, and organize community forums.

The Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, responding to what it described as “growing demands to increase state education funding,” on Thursday issued a statement urging lawmakers “to resist calls to write a blank check for education.” The alliance asked that any change to the state’s education funding formula set aside money dedicated to school innovation “that closes achievement gaps and increases college and career success.”

“State leaders must set specific, higher improvement targets, particularly to serve our most disadvantaged students, and implement reforms that close the racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps and workforce skills gaps that threaten the economic and social health of the state,” the group said in a statement.

The statement was signed onto by groups the alliance said collectively represent more than 10,000 employers — Associated Industries of Massachusetts, TechNet, 1Berkshire, the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, Springfield Business Leaders for Education and 13 chambers of commerce.

The MTA’s website describes its Fund Our Future campaign in three stages: “Raise expectations,” by talking about the public schools and colleges communities wish to see; “Raise some hell,” passing resolutions, distributing leaflets and advocating on social media so policymakers “feel the heat”; and “Raise revenues,” by joining local and statewide actions “to win passage of progressive revenue measures, either in the State House or – if necessary – on the ballot.”

The campaign comes amidst failed efforts on Beacon Hill to both raise money for education and pass bills designed to plug funding gaps.

A state commission in 2015 reported that the formula used to determine the amount of state aid a school district receives does not adequately account for costs of health insurance and educating low-income students, English language learners and special education students. The House and Senate this session approved disparate bills attempting to plug that gap, but a Democrat-controlled conference committee failed to reach common ground this summer.

The teachers association estimated that the Senate version of the bill (S 2600) would increase state education spending by more than $1 billion annually, and the House version (H 4714) would increase spending by about a third of that amount.

Supporters of an income surtax on wealthy households had also hoped to raise $2 billion and earmark it for education and transportation, but that plan for a constitutional amendment was tossed off the ballot this summer by the Supreme Judicial Court because it conflated subjects.

Income surtax supporters plan to redraft and refile their proposal, but the earliest that it could reach the ballot in Massachusetts would be 2022.

The appetite among lawmakers for big tax increases, the kind that could raise $1.5 billion, has not been strong in the Legislature in recent years.

Lawmakers in 2009 raised the sales tax rate from 5 percent to 6.25 percent, the biggest single tax hike in recent years.

In 2013, the Legislature raised the gas tax by 3 cents a gallon and indexed that tax to inflation, increased the per-pack tax on cigarettes by $1, and applied the sales tax to software services. Lawmakers that same year reversed course and repealed the software services tax and voters in 2014 repealed the law that had indexed the gas tax to inflation.

It may take a two-thirds vote to enact a major tax increase since Gov. Charlie Baker, overwhelmingly reelected to a second term that starts in January, has discouraged major tax hikes and could veto any tax- bill sent to his desk.

In November, Education Secretary James Peyser said state officials would be “trying to do the things in the budget and through policy that are ensuring we’re getting the biggest bang for our buck and that, importantly, our students are getting the outcomes they need and deserve.”

Peyser said “both funding-related and non-funding-related” issues needed to be considered, including “ensuring that we’re spending these dollars well, because at the end of the day, how much money we have, how much money we spend is important, but not as important as how well we spend it.”

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education last month recommended its fiscal 2020 budget priorities to Peyser, saying education aid should be funded “at the highest level possible based on available revenues” and that special education account funding “be at a level as close to the maximum 75 percent reimbursement level as state revenue permits.” After the state’s contribution to foundation education aid is met, the board recommended that any additional aid “be directed to districts with identified achievement gaps in student learning, to support reforms that have evidence of narrowing achievement gaps.”

[Michael P. Norton contributed reporting]

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