June 28, 2017

Editorial: Another year shortchanging our students

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Flickr / U.S. Department of Education

It costs a lot of money to teach students, and despite Massachusetts' reputation as an education leader many feel there is a large investment gap to fill.

With the school year over and the end of the state’s fiscal year just days away it seems an appropriate time to lament another missed opportunity to address the inadequate funding of the commonwealth’s public schools.

Gov. Charlie Baker’s fiscal 2018 budget proposal included an increase of $91.4 million over fiscal 2017, to a total of $4.72 billion. The House ($15 million) and Senate ($40 million) each appropriated more in their budgets, which are now being reconciled before being sent to Baker.

While the increases are certainly a welcome development, they do little to address what many consider a long-term funding deficit and miscalculation of how those funds are distributed to municipalities. This is despite the fact that local education aid, known as Chapter 70, has increased an average of $126 million per year from 2011, according to a State House News Service article.

The state’s education funding formula, little changed since education reform was passed in 1993, has been shown to shortchange districts by $1 billion to $2 billion per year, according to the 2015 report of the Foundation Budget Review Commission.

An article noted that “the budget does not accurately reflect the costs of health care and special education, significantly underfunding both. The report also flagged problems with the way the state calculates funding for English language learners and suggested new strategies for helping low-income students.”

In short, while all districts are affected by the funding deficit, cities are the hardest hit.

Sonia Chang-Diaz

State House News Service/Sam Doran

Boston Public Schools graduate Kalise Osula, a member of Youth on Board, spoke about a lack of resources at her former school. She was one of several speakers pushing for a bill sponsored by Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz (left) to update the “foundation budget” school funding formula.

Baker has made small steps toward acting on the commission’s recommendations. The increase in his Chapter 70 budget includes $15.3 million to address health insurance costs, which he calls a “down payment” on recommendations.

The Senate, however, has made the biggest move in the direction of correcting the funding problem.

“This budget demonstrates the Senate’s continued commitment to fulfilling the promise of the 1993 Education Reform Act by beginning to implement the Foundation Budget Review Commission’s recommendations,” said Sen. Pat Jehlen, D-Somerville, a member of the Senate Ways and Means Committee and the Foundation Budget Review Commission. “It is so important that the budget not only devotes $35 million toward that goal, but once again lays out a plan so that every year we will project the requirements of the foundation budget along with projecting revenue.”

Incremental steps aside, a bill currently before the Joint Committee on Education would turn the commission’s recommendations into law. Senate Bill S 223, An Act Modernizing the Foundation Budget for the 21st century, was filed by commission co-chair Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz in February.

The list of cosponsors includes the entire Worcester legislative delegation, Sens. Harriette L. Chandler and Michael O. Moore, and Reps. Kate D. Campanale, Daniel M. Donahue, Mary S. Keefe, John J. Mahoney and James. J. O’Day.

While the bill is being considered, provisions of it were passed unanimously as an amendment in the Senate’s version of the budget, which is now being reconciled by conference committee.

We’re hopeful the recommendations survive budget reconciliation or that S 223 is passed in its stead. But we’ve been down this road before.

According to a State House News Service article, “The Senate has twice passed versions of the bill, once as part of legislation that tied major new investments in education to an increase in the cap on charter schools and once as an amendment to its fiscal 2017 budget.

“The charter bill passed the Senate, 22-13, and was never taken up by the House. The budget amendment, which Chang-Diaz said at the time had 22 cosponsors, did not survive after deliberations before a six-person House-Senate conference committee.”

Moreover, the bill means little if the Legislature does not provide the funding. And on this point the legislative leadership has been clear that it is pinning its hopes for additional education revenue on the voters.

Barring legal challenge, Massachusetts voters will next year decide whether to impose a surtax of four percent on income of more than $1 million a year. The so-called Fair Share Amendment, which has passed Constitutional Conventions in two legislative sessions, would raise, according to estimates, upwards of $2 billion.

The problem of funding schools has been long in the making, and municipalities have paid a price. Proposition 2 ½ limits to the tax revenue that can be raised coupled with the state’s inaccurate funding formula have created a perfect storm.

That the state as a whole continues to rank among the best-educated in the country is a credit to the talented pool of educators and the statewide system. At the same time, overall rankings mask serious deficiencies in achievement by schools in poorer or more diverse districts.

“We have high highs and low lows, but there are actually pockets of inequity,” Chang-Diaz told the Jamaica Plain news. “Massachusetts tops level of achievements on average in the country, but we’re also 48th in the country for inequality of students. There are thousands of students [for whom] we have not met that 1993 promise, and we’re not in position to meet it now.”

In this budget season alone, the strain has forced layoffs or open positions to remain vacant in Brockton, Leominster, Framingham and Chicopee. Worcester, on the other hand — which will hire 65 new teachers for the upcoming school year — has fared reasonably well. Surely not to be lost in this debate are the children who suffer while yet another year has passed without a long-term solution to the problem with education funding.

It is fair to note that Massachusetts ranks 8th out of 50 states in per-pupil expenditures — $15,050 per student, compared to $11,009 nationally — according to U.S. Census Bureau data from 2014.

It would be wise to heed the words of Chang-Diaz, who said: “Public education is square one for long-term prosperity of the state, and if we are going to continue to thrive economically, we have to make serious investments in the education system.

“This is our calling card. Businesses don’t come here because of oil wells or other natural resources. It’s not for cheap real estate or good weather. They come here for our talented workforce. It’s why Massachusetts continues to be one of the most prosperous states in the nation. We need to continue to steward our education system.”

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