The Senate’s leadership shakeup on a committee that’s poised to shape education funding reform legislation this session is prompting a call for greater attention to diversity in the Legislature.
When Senate President Karen Spilka last week assigned senators to committees and leadership positions, she tapped Winchester Sen. Jason Lewis of as chair of the Education Committee, replacing longtime chair Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz of Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood. On Thursday, Spilka said Chang-Diaz will continue to play a “vital role” on school funding.
Chang-Diaz, the chief sponsor of a Senate education reform bill, no longer serves on the panel, and is the new co-chair of the Marijuana Policy and the Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities committees.
A statement released on Thursday by groups describing themselves as “organizations serving communities of color” raised concerns about the removal of Chang-Diaz, a vocal advocate for school funding reform and the one woman of color in the Senate, and broader issues about the lack of diversity in the Legislature, whose members are predominantly white and male.
“To be clear, our concerns are not solely about Senator Chang-Diaz,” the groups wrote. “In this moment, she serves as the latest example of how people of color -- especially women of color -- are subject to rebuke for representing us too fiercely and too well. We were expecting bold change from the Legislature’s leadership, but now we fear that this commitment has moved in the opposite direction, especially when it comes to closing the opportunity and achievement gaps for the children in the diverse and low-income communities that we serve and represent.”
The statement is signed by Greater Boston Latino Network Co-Chairs Alex Oliver-Davila and Vanessa Calderon-Rosado, Amplify Latinx Co-Founders Betty Francisco and Eneida Roman, Diana Hwang of the Asian-American Women’s Political Initiative, and Tanisha Sullivan. Sullivan is president of the Boston chapter of the NAACP, though her organization is not listed on the statement.
The group described Chang-Diaz as “a highly visible and vocal leader on the issue of closing the commonwealth’s achievement gaps for students of color and ensuring equitable funding for our public schools,” and said she “has been unfairly characterized as being too passionate, overly committed to equity issues, and lacking strategic heft.”
Before lawmakers were assigned to committees this year, Chang-Diaz touted her new bill, dubbed the Promise Act, at a State House event in January that drew more than 20 lawmakers, the mayors of Boston, Easthampton, Holyoke, Lawrence, and Worcester, and dozens of advocates, including Sullivan. It calls for up to $2 billion in new education funding, which would be phased in over multiple years.
Chang-Diaz said in a statement last week that she was excited to be chairing her two new committees and “working with parents, students, educators, and local leaders to pass the Promise Act this summer.”
On Friday, she posted on Twitter that she is “not going anywhere” when it comes to education funding. “This is critical, generational reform -- and I’ll be here, fighting alongside you every step of the way until we get it done right for all our kids, including & especially low-income kids & kids of color who can’t be shortchanged again,” she wrote.
Lewis, who has said school finance issues including cuts at his daughter’s school prompted him to initially get involved in local and state government, was an early co-sponsor of Chang-Diaz’s bill.
Along with Lewis, the Education Committee this session is helmed by Rep. Alice Peisch of Wellesley. Chang-Diaz and Peisch last session led ultimately unsuccessful negotiations that attempted to reconcile divergent House and Senate school funding bills.
Lawmakers say they plan to tackle education funding reform this session, in part to better account for the costs of educating low-income students, English language learners, and special education students, along with employee health care expenses. A 2015 report from the Foundation Budget Review Commission, chaired by Peisch and Chang-Diaz, found the current school funding formula underestimates the costs in those four areas.
Spilka, in a statement to the News Service on Thursday, said the Senate has “led in implementing” the commission’s recommendations through the budget process, including $18.5 million in new funding in fiscal 2019 for educating English language learners.
“The Senate remains resolute in our commitment to fully implementing the FBRC recommendations and making meaningful progress towards that goal in this year’s budget,” Spilka said. “Senator Chang-Diaz will continue to play a vital role as the Senate moves this priority forward.”
Noting the two Education Committee chairs “represent predominantly white and affluent suburban districts,” Oliver-Davila, Calderon-Rosado, Francisco, Roman, Hwang and Sullivan said they “demand that the State Legislature immediately bring greater racial diversity, including women of color, to its leadership and to the Education Committee so we can be assured that our voices are heard, our issues are addressed, and that our Legislature is working for all of us.”
The upper ranks of legislative leadership in both branches are now filled only by white lawmakers, after the two people of color in House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s leadership team last session, former Assistant Majority Leader Byron Rushing and former House Ways and Means Chairman Jeffrey Sanchez, lost their reelection bids.
Of the 200 state lawmakers, 13 are members of the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus this session and six are members of the Asian-American Caucus. Several members of those two caucuses -- Reps. Marcos Devers, Nika Elugardo, Liz Miranda, Jon Santiago, Tram Nguyen, and Maria Robinson – are in their first term, and freshman lawmakers are not typically assigned to committee chairs or leadership positions.