By John Lynds
Just as Beacon Hill lawmakers are set to debate the Education PROMISE Act, sponsored by Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz and supported by Mayor Martin Walsh, the Jamaica Plain senator was stipped of her post as Chair of the Joint Committee on Education. Instead, Chang-Diaz was reassigned by Senate President Karen Spilka to chair two committees on marijuana and children, families, and persons with disabilities.
During the state’s last legislative session a bill by Chang-Diaz would have recalculated the cost to educate each student in public school districts known as the ‘foundation budget’ and poured millions of dollars into school over the next several years.
However that bill failed and since then educators have been calling the mechanism the state uses to provide students with equitable access to educational opportunities ‘obsolete’ and must be revised to meet the expectations of today’s economy.
Chang-Diaz emerged as a leader on the issue and was praised by educators because she joined the chorus of those who felt the state has not updated its education funding formula to reflect districts’ real health insurance and special education costs, the amount of aid being provided to cover those costs is too small.
Chang-Diaz and her allies argued that to compensate for no change in the formula, many districts like Boston end up using money that would otherwise have supported core education programs—including Regular Ed. Teachers, Materials & Technology, and Professional Development. This also results in dramatic cuts in other areas of education.
The problem for low income school districts is there is a growing equity gap between schools in Boston and schools in more affluent areas of the state. When faced with such shortfalls, high-wealth districts can often draw on additional, local revenue. Lower-wealth districts, however, are generally unable to do so and the consequence is that they spend less on resources that are critically important to the quality of education students receive.
Before being stripped of the Education Committee, Chang-Diaz refiled the Education PROMISE Act that aims to reform state education funding by fully implementing the Foundation Budget Review Commission (FBRC) recommendations and addressing the underlying inequities within the Commonwealth’s education funding formulas, like Chapter 70. As a result of Chang-Diaz’s bill, foundation budgets statewide would better reflect the true cost of educating students, and there will be a renewed partnership between the state and all districts in funding those foundation budgets.
“Children across our Commonwealth are waiting for us to fulfill the promise we made in our Constitution and in the 1993 Education Reform Act: that zip code should not be destiny,” said Chang-Díaz after filing the bill. “For 25 years, we have failed to live up to that promise-first unknowingly and now, for the past three years, knowingly. Our schools are suffering from death by a thousand paper cuts. This bill isn’t about providing ‘new’ or ‘extra’ funds. It’s about making good on what we’ve already promised.”
However, the removal of Chang-Diaz from the Education Committee, someone many saw as a champion of education equality, did not sit well with some.
A coalition of activists from the Greater Boston Latino Network, Amplify Latinx and the Asian American Women’s Political Initiative joined forces to decry Spilka’s decision to remove Chang-Diaz.
“As members and representatives of African-American, Latinx and Asian- American serving communities and organizations, we are disheartened by the abrupt removal of Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz from the Joint Committee on Education at a critical time when the State Legislature is preparing to debate school finance reform,” said a statement from the coalition. “The decision to remove Senator Chang-Diaz from this important Committee raises serious concerns about the State Legislature’s commitment to our children, particularly English language learners, children from low-income families, and children of color. By removing the most visible and vocal supporter for communities of color from this Committee, we are left without an advocate who will champion the issues that impact our most vulnerable children during one of the most important education equity decisions of our time.”
The group pointed out that the Massachusetts Legislature is one of the least diverse in the nation and Chang-Diaz is the only woman of color in the Senate. Of the 160 Representatives in the State House, only four are women of color.
“It is important to understand that when we elect people of color to represent us, they bring unique cultural and community perspectives to Beacon Hill that should be respected and embraced rather than sidelined and undermined,” read the statement. “In light of the significant challenges facing the Commonwealth to close pervasive racial achievement gaps, we are deeply dismayed by the removal of Senator Chang-Diaz not only as Chair of the Education Committee but from the Committee itself.”
The group expressed outraged that Chang-Diaz was replaced by Sen. Jason Lewis, who represents more affluent areas of Greater Boston like Malden, Melrose, Reading, Stoneham, Wakefield, and parts of Winchester.
“She was replaced by (a senator) who represent predominantly white and affluent suburban districts, creating higher stakes for ensuring that the issues facing low-income children and children of color are kept front and center. We see and feel this loss because her advocacy has consistently been on behalf of our children, families, and communities.”