A holistic approach to education funding formula

Schools need more money, but it must be spent strategically

MASSACHUSETTS IS POISED to continue its role as a leader in public education by making the next round of significant investments and innovations in its districts and schools. As a partnership of social justice, civil rights, and education advocates, we commend Gov. Charlie Baker and the leadership in both the Senate and House for making the effort to update the state’s 26-year-old foundation budget formula a top priority this spring.

The decisions lawmakers make about how much to invest, as well as where and how to invest that funding, will significantly impact the educational outcomes and lives of students for years to come. When it comes to updating the foundation budget formula, we urge lawmakers to:

  • Significantly increase investment in districts serving our highest need communities;
  • Ensure that dollars are used in ways that reflect what research and evidence say works for students;
  • Increase transparency about both spending and student outcomes; and
  • Commit to regularly reviewing and updating the formula going forward.

While Massachusetts is often celebrated for its high education rankings, the reality is that far too many of our children – especially our students of color, low-income students, English learners, and students with disabilities – are not receiving the learning opportunities they need to be prepared for the demands of our state’s knowledge-based economy.

Our recent report, Number One for Some, documented the severe inequities faced by these chronically underserved populations on every critical measure of opportunity and achievement. Consider, for example:

  • In Massachusetts, fewer than 1 in 3 black and Latino 4th graders are on grade level in reading — half the rate for the state’s white students.
  • Only 28 percent of low-income 8th graders are on grade level in math — again, less than half the rate for higher income students.
  • 1 in 3 English learners don’t graduate on time — and 1 in 7 drop out of school entirely.
Funding disparities undoubtedly contribute to these inequities. Today our highest need districts are often forced to work with thousands of dollars less per student than their wealthy counterparts – a travesty in a state that prides itself on its progressive values. We urge lawmakers to address these inequities now, and not years down the line when today’s kindergartners are in middle school.

But as badly needed and as important as the new funding will be, research and experience show that improving education opportunities for our underserved students won’t happen by updating a formula and spending more money alone. The cost of education is not the only thing that has changed since 1993. We know far more today about what works for students than we did 26 years ago — but spending decisions often aren’t based in this knowledge. Additional funding should come with requirements that new dollars be used to support evidence and research-informed strategies – and that students, families, and community advocates be at the table when these spending decisions are made.

Specific strategies will likely differ from district to district. Where chronic absenteeism or discipline rates are high, they might include efforts to improve school climate and shift from exclusionary discipline to restorative practices. Where early or adolescent literacy is a challenge, they might include targeted training and coaching for teachers, as well as acceleration academies or extending the school day to provide students with necessary support. Where English-only continues to be the sole approach to supporting English learners, they might include establishing dual-language immersion programs. Where students don’t currently have access to the types of learning experiences that their more privileged peers benefit from every day – be they computer science classes, advanced courses, or engaging electives – districts may choose to invest in creating these opportunities. And where students are not currently getting the critical guidance and support to navigate in-school and out-of-school challenges, districts may need to bring on board additional counselors, social workers, and school psychologists to provide that support.

New funding must also come with greater transparency with regard to both spending and student outcomes. Taxpayers, policymakers, educators, and parents need to know whether the new investments are getting to schools and classrooms, improving conditions for learning, and actually impacting student experiences and outcomes.

As a partnership, we are emphasizing the urgency of this matter and offering our help. Districts are doing their budgets for the next school year right now, and we cannot afford another year of the status quo for students who have already been underserved for too long.

There is no excellence without equity. Let’s make history and make Massachusetts the best state in our country for every single child.

The Massachusetts Education Equity Partnership is a collective effort of social justice, civil rights and education advocacy organizations from across the Commonwealth and beyond working together to promote educational equity in our state’s schools. Members include: Amplify Latinx; Coaching for Change; Educators for Excellence Boston; Higher Ground; Latinos for Education; Multistate Association for Bilingual Education Northeast; Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition; Massachusetts Parents United; Stand for Children Massachusetts; Strategies for Children; TeachPlus; The Education Trust; Worcester Education Collaborative; and the Urban League of Springfield.