Mass. cities losing clout in ed funding fight

Shift in voting power to suburbs changes the political dynamic

WE PREVIOUSLY CO-AUTHORED an article in CommonWealth detailing the increasing discrepancies in municipal finance between the “haves” and the “have-nots” among Massachusetts cities and towns. It should not be surprising, therefore, that we are concerned about antiquated funding formulas that create a similar divide when it comes to state aid to education in Massachusetts.

The issue has received renewed attention in the wake of the 2015 report of the Foundation Budget Review Commission, which spotlighted the inadequacy of the existing school funding formula, particularly for urban districts educating large numbers of English language learners and special needs students. Since then, legislators have tried, but so far failed, to enact reforms to the funding formula.

We believe that the inability thus far to address this issue is directly related to the ever-increasing suburban population in the Commonwealth, which now elects the majority of members of the House and the Senate. Representatives at every level of government have always voted their pocketbooks to secure their standing among the voters back home. This issue is no different.

Over many decades, the population in Massachusetts has become increasingly suburbanized. This shift has led to many consequences, the most important being a change in the makeup of legislative districts. As the population has shifted from urban centers to suburban areas, legislative districts have been adjusted to accommodate the increased population in these formerly rural locations.

In 1966, the 39 original cities in Massachusetts constituted 57 percent of the state’s population and 51 percent of the aggregate turnout in the state election that November. By 2018, those same cities made up only 45 percent of the state’s population and accounted for just 37 percent of the vote in the November election. While the total population of the Commonwealth has increased over that time by 27 percent, the impact of voters in Massachusetts cities is nearly a third less than what it used to be.

What does this mean for cities in Massachusetts? Put simply, it means that the fight to update state funding formulas, particularly in the field of education, has become a lot harder.

Let’s look at the Chapter 70 formula as an example. Chapter 70, the formula used to distribute state aid for education in the Commonwealth, was last amended in 1993. At that point in time, cities made up almost half of the state’s population and just under 40 percent of those who voted in the state election. Today, these same cities have seen about a 10 percent reduction in both of these percentages. At the same time, school districts located in the suburban areas of the state have generally flourished, while school districts in the urban districts of the state have needed to find new ways to further tighten their belts and cut spending, given that many urban communities have not seen robust growth in their property tax base.

In their article in CommonWealth earlier this year, “It’s time for another McDuffy case,” Julia Mejia and Michael Maguire argued that it is time to update the Chapter 70 formula to ensure that school districts in urban centers are able to offer their students the same quality education that suburbs are able to provide.

Our article is meant to show why it may not be possible to accomplish this through the Legislature. The plaintiffs in the McDuffy case claimed that the formula for school aid had gotten to a point that it violated the constitutional duty of the state to “cherish public education in the towns,” since the funds were distributed in a way that was more than adequate for some but inadequate for others. The Supreme Judicial Court ordered the legislative and executive branches to construct a remedy to the problem that met the constitutional duty of the state and fell within a set of guidelines provided by the court as a result of the McDuffy case. The result was the Chapter 70 funding reform included in the Education Reform Act of 1993.

Given the shift since then of both population and the electorate to more suburban areas, despite renewed hopes for action in the coming session on Beacon Hill, a purely legislative fix to the problem may almost be impossible.

It is only human nature for members of a legislative body to vote on behalf of the interest of their districts. Unlike 50, or even 25 years ago, a large portion of the Legislature now comes from suburban constituencies that are doing quite well under the status quo. As such, trying to convince the Legislature to implement a new formula that will increase funding to urban centers by reducing funding to suburban communities is an uphill battle.

Last month’s election showed a continuation of this trend. While there were slight increases since 2014 in the percent of the state turnout from urban centers like Boston, Chelsea, and Holyoke, most cities saw continued decrease in their share of the statewide vote. Even those that did see an increase from 2014 remain at a much lower share of the statewide vote than was the case in 1966.

While a purely legislative solution to this problem is almost impossible, something must be done if we are to ensure that all students in the Commonwealth receive an adequate education. One has to wonder if the current reliance on property taxes and inadequate Chapter 70 funding constitutes a new “separate but equal” for the Commonwealth’s school districts. Affluent, suburban districts thrive, while poorer, urban districts struggle.

A new case, like McDuffy, is needed to provide for the needs of our students. Residents of traditional urban areas in the Commonwealth simply do not have the voice that they once had in the State House. Allowing the independent judiciary to rule as to whether it is necessary to update funding formulas may be the only solution to solve the current education inequality problem across the Commonwealth.

Meet the Author

Meet the Author

The idea that all students of the Commonwealth, no matter where they live, have a right to a quality and well-rounded education is one that was enshrined in the Commonwealth’s Constitution in 1780, and still stands firm today. If we are to be successful as a Commonwealth, we need to ensure that the educational needs of all students are being met.

Lawrence S. DiCara is an attorney and author and served for 10 years as a member of the Boston City Council. Michael Nicholson serves as the executive aide to the mayor of the City of Gardner and is a student at Suffolk University Law School.