Investing in quality education for all

Senate budget looks to address funding shortfalls, inequities

OUR COMMONWEALTH’S CONTINUED success depends on our investments today to help our children grow up strong and resilient. While discussions of resilience usually focus on social and emotional wellness and overcoming trauma, there is one bedrock requirement for all children, of all backgrounds, that we ignore at our peril: a quality education. There is no issue more important to our future than ensuring a quality education for all of our children.

Economic insecurity can have a dramatic impact on academic, health, and social outcomes, but too often a child’s future success depends on the zip code he or she is born into. The Senate Committee on Ways and Means budget proposal, which the full Senate debated last week, therefore invests $4.6 billion in the Chapter 70 education funding formula, a $116 million increase, to ensure every child in every school district receives more aid in the coming fiscal year.

The Senate also included landmark language to overhaul the Chapter 70 formula to fund Massachusetts school districts more fairly and adequately in the future. Recognizing that some children enter school with unique challenges and barriers to learning, the Chapter 70 formula has long directed additional aid to students with special needs, English Language Learners, and students designated as “low income.”

The state’s Foundation Budget Review Commission (FBRC) reported last year, however, that the formula grossly underestimates the high cost of adequately educating these students—many of whom require a higher level of intervention and assistance, and are constitutionally guaranteed our support. Meanwhile, increased costs for health insurance threaten to continue to reduce the dollars available for teaching and educational enrichment.

When the Senate passed the RISE Act in April, we stated our commitment to implementing the FBRC recommendations so that we could get education funding back on a secure footing. The Senate’s budget shows that our commitment to adequate education funding remains undiminished. Upon passage of the budget, the House, Senate, and administration will be tasked with determining a schedule for funding these recommendations.

During this year’s budget cycle, difficulties in accurately identifying low-income students have been identified. We have taken steps to address these issues. While Massachusetts has historically counted low-income students as the number of children receiving free and reduced price lunch through the federal government’s school meals program, for the past two years, many communities in the state have taken advantage of the US Department of Agriculture’s new Community Eligibility Program for school meals.

The result has been that instead of collecting application forms for free and reduced price lunch, communities with a high concentration of students who qualify can reduce their administrative burden by providing free meals to all students regardless of income.

Although this change has significantly improved the school meals program, and reduced the stigma around receiving free lunch, it has disrupted the process for accurately counting the number of low-income students for the purposes of Chapter 70 funding. The Executive Office of Education has proposed counting “economically disadvantaged” students as those who have been enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Transitional Assistance for Families with Dependent Children (TAFDC), the state foster care program, or MassHealth in any of the last four years.

This new “economically disadvantaged” measure generates a significantly lower estimate of low-income students in some communities than the previous method, and many children have lost their low-income status in the transition. While these students still require the same level of increased support and attention, many school districts fear they will no longer receive the additional assistance they need to provide it.

To offset this unintended consequence, the Senate budget proposes adjustments to the Chapter 70 formula to better support low-income students. Just as Gov. Baker proposed in his budget, we use a single rate for students in elementary and secondary school, recognizing that educating low-income students of all ages is costly for school districts.

The Senate budget also recommends a uniform increase in the base rate for low-income students and directs additional aid to communities with a higher concentration of low-income students, to ensure students growing up in economically disadvantaged areas are not left behind.  Furthermore, the Senate boosts funding for those districts that would have received less aid for their low-income learners using the new definition, resulting in an increase in education aid overall. Moving forward, our budget will establish a task force to assess the most accurate way of accounting for low-income students.

Meet the Author

Karen Spilka

Senator, Massachusetts Senate
Ultimately, encouraging more low-income families to enroll in the public benefits for which they are eligible will not only help the state best identify low income children, it will also help strengthen families over time.  The Senate budget therefore recommends a new common application portal to streamline the application process for MassHealth, SNAP, child care, and other state benefits to help more families take advantage of these resources.

Implementing the FBRC’s recommendations is a complex process and will require a concerted, collaborative effort by the Legislature and the administration to improve funding fairness and adequacy for all school districts. In the Senate, we believe we owe it to our kids—and to our future—to commit ourselves to doing so. The Senate budget’s comprehensive approach to Chapter 70 funding, including increased aid, a much-needed overhaul of the formula and additional stabilizing education assistance for low-income students, is an important first step.

Karen Spilka, a Democratic state senator from Ashland, is chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means.