Lawmakers must do right by low-income students

Funding formula revamp should close 'opportunity gap' that holds students back

WE WANT WHAT all parents want. We want our kids to succeed, to lead happy lives, to contribute to their communities, to grow up to catch their dreams. We wake up each morning committed to doing everything we can to help them get there — just like all parents do.

Yet, even as we work to give our kids every possible chance for success, we know they are still not getting the same opportunities as their peers. That’s why it’s so crucial that the education funding bill now being negotiated in the Legislature fully funds recommendations that have been made to provide all students in the Commonwealth with a quality education.

Our families are too frequently deprived of essential resources and critical information because of economic circumstances, linguistic and cultural barriers, and access to social capital. Some of our kids have been lucky enough to join the METCO program or be able to transfer to private schools, but what about the rest? The discrepancies are all too clear. Education is drastically underfunded in working-class communities of color like ours and our kids are suffering as a result.

Our kids aren’t provided with math and science textbooks in their schools because there isn’t the money. They share one guidance counselor with 300 other students, many of whom come to school every day with the trauma of being homeless or losing friends to street violence. Special education and tutoring services are rationed to parents who have the time during the day, the English proficiency, and, in some cases, the lawyers to demand attention. Families are asked to provide $100 worth of basic school supplies – tissues, hand sanitizer, crayons – at the beginning of each school year, even though we struggle to make the rent payment, because that’s how our schools make ends meet.

This is all on top of the additional barriers that low-income black and brown kids face outside of school. Many kids in our neighborhoods don’t have computers at home, come to school hungry each day, or don’t have a grown-up at home who can check their homework. Enrichment opportunities like robotics camp or dance lessons are something only kids on TV – or in wealthier suburban districts right next door – get.

Faced with higher barriers than their more affluent peers, our kids need more support in school to overcome those barriers and have an equal shot at success. But, instead, they are provided less. Our communities are left underfunded and ignored. Yet we know our kids are just as talented, just as smart, and have just as much to offer Massachusetts as their wealthier peers.

This isn’t just unfair. It’s unlawful. Parents and students sued the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1978 for violating the state constitution’s directive to “cherish” public education. In 1993, as that lawsuit was finally being decided, the Legislature passed the Education Reform Act, designed to close achievement gaps by increasing choice, establishing accountability measures to evaluate success, and improving funding.

Yet, two decades later, in 2015, the bipartisan Foundation Budget Review Commission found that the Legislature never got the funding right for poor kids and made no progress in closing achievement gap. Perhaps we should instead call it opportunity gaps and put the blame where it belongs. Students of color and low-income children continue to get far fewer supports than research and best practices have clearly demonstrated are essential for them to have an equal shot.

No wonder Massachusetts has one of the worst achievement gaps in the nation between poor students and their more affluent peers. In Lexington and Weston, schools spend between $17,000 and $23,000 per student. In some cities like Lawrence,​ ​schools are only able to spend $13,000.

While affluent schools have the money for thriving arts programs, sports teams, and foreign language departments, districts serving primarily low-income students can’t get what they need. The inadequate funding means that schools are doing a disservice to our English language learners, students who require special education services, and our most vulnerable learners who need increased academic support in core subjects such as math and reading as well as social-emotional services to succeed in school.

This is all on top of disproportionately large classroom and caseload sizes in lower-income school districts. It means Weston’s guidance counselor to student ratio is 1:86 but Lawrence’s is 1:217. This is not just an achievement gap. It’s a resource gap.

It is disheartening to learn that ​House education committee chair Alice Peisch and Senate chair Jason Lewis are renegotiating​ the ​fully funded low-income weighting​ that was unanimously agreed upon by the committee last session​ and seem likely to compromise on a figure below what was included in the Promise Act filed this year by Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz. If we want to address the inequities, the burden of compromise must be borne not by those with the least resources but by those with the most.

We know well that money alone doesn’t fix problems. We’re going to be here fighting to make sure that money gets used effectively for our kids long after this bill is passed. But we also know that, ​as an independent report by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center noted recently​, we can’t reasonably expect success for our kids’ schools — with all the additional load they carry — for less than what wealthy communities are paying for their students.

If money didn’t matter, wealthy parents would not be paying out of pocket for the extracurriculars, private tutors, and every other thing they can to get their kids that extra edge. It’s been nearly four years since the Foundation Budget Review Commission report, more than 10 months since House Speaker Robert DeLeo said he was working on a solution, and more than three months since the Education Committee held its hearing. Meanwhile, since the Foundation Budget report was filed, half of one of our daughter’s elementary school career has passed in a broken system that continues to fail her and her future.

We ask Rep. Peisch and Sen. Lewis: Would you find these conditions acceptable for your kids’ education? If not, how can you ask us to accept it for our kids?

Meet the Author
Meet the Author
Meet the Author
Meet the Author

Julia Mejia

Founder and CEO, Collaborative Parent Leadership Action Network
It’s time for the Legislature to live up to its rhetoric on equity and pass all five of the Foundation Budget Review Commission’s recommendations — with the full low-income rate — before the beginning of the next school year.

Ivelisse Caraballo is a Brockton parent leader in the Collaborative Parent Leadership Action Network (CPLAN), a diverse network of parents, school leaders, educators, and students working across district, charter, parochial, and METCO schools to inform and influence policies and practices to improve the educational outcomes for all students. Yahaira Lopez is a Randolph parent and Marianela Rivera is a Lawrence parent with the organization. Julia Mejia is founder and executive director of CPLAN. She is also an at-large candidate for Boston city council.