On target: ed reform money reaching poorer districts
New state aid flowing to needier systems, as intended, while 141 districts see only minimum increase
THE LOW-INCOME, HEAVILY IMMIGRANT city of Chelsea is getting over $2,600 per pupil more in state education aid than it did two years ago. That translates to nearly $19 million in additional funds each year going into the district’s $118 million budget.
Mary Bourque, a former Chelsea superintendent and now director of government affairs for the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, called that a prime illustration that the Student Opportunity Act, a landmark rewrite of the state’s public education funding formula, is working.
“It is benefiting those who were intended to benefit,” Bourque said.
Passage of the law in 2019 came after years of complaints that the state education funding formula was not keeping pace with actual costs of providing an adequate education. The original formula, established through the Education Reform Act of 1993, was designed to help equalize education funding by steering more state aid to poorer communities, but critics say those districts were increasingly struggling to meet the rising costs of educating low-income students, English learners, and special education students. The revamp of the funding formula boosted state aid for all three categories of students as well as for the increasing costs of employee health care.
At the other end of the state aid spectrum, there are 141 communities that only got the minimum increase in aid, an extra $90 per student over two years. Minimum aid communities tend to be communities that are wealthy or have declining enrollment.
Bourque said the districts getting the most money are those with the largest share of students on the lower end of the large achievement gaps that characterize student performance across the state. She said schools can use the new money to reduce class sizes and add staff, interventions, and wraparound services to “close the gaps that the underfunding all the previous years have caused.”
As the money flows, however, it is also raising the question about how districts are using the money and whether the money will lead to its intended effect: improving student outcomes.
“The Student Opportunity Act was touted as a once in a generation opportunity to close gaps,” said Ed Lambert, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, a business-backed group that has been pushing for accountability by school districts. Lambert said his organization is very concerned that school districts have not yet fully accounted for how they are using the money, so there is no way to know if the strategies will be effective.
The data compiled by Bump’s office illustrate the huge impact the Student Opportunity Act is having in some districts, compared to the relatively small impact it has in others. (See interactive map below.) The data identify 15 school districts where per pupil aid increased by more than $2,000 between 2021 and 2023. Five of these are vocational schools, which are classified as individual districts, and the rest are Gateway City districts. Among them are Chelsea, Fall River, Lynn, Everett, New Bedford, and Springfield. Another 11 school districts got a bump of more than $1,500 per pupil. Most of these are also low-income urban communities, like Fitchburg, Revere, and Holyoke.
Since these tend to be more populous urban districts, an increase in per pupil spending can translate into a significant infusion of dollars. Springfield, the state’s third largest city, got an additional $62 million in state aid between 2021 and 2023. Fall River got $31 million more.
Colin Jones, senior policy analyst at the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, said the large share of money going to the Gateway Cities is exactly what one would expect to see, since around 40 percent of the state’s low-income students live in Gateway Cities. “I think the story of the SOA is how we are investing in the communities that have the least ability to do it,” Jones said. “If your goal is to serve low-income kids and English learners and those who have been unable to invest because of demographics and wealth in their communities, it’s working as intended.”
The way Chapter 70 works is the state sets a “foundation budget,” reflecting how much it costs to educate students, then divides that cost between the state and local districts. The amount each district is expected to contribute depends on how wealthy its taxpayers are.
This means the districts that will see the greatest jumps in state aid are those with high proportions of low-income students and students learning English in communities whose taxpayers lack money to cover those costs.
The formula is also based on how many children are in a district, so districts with increasing enrollment will get more money. (A “hold harmless” provision in the law ensures districts with declining enrollment do not see their aid decrease, but it will remain flat.)
Boston stands out as an unusual district when it comes to the state funding formula. The state’s largest city has a lot of high-needs students, but Boston residents overall have high household income and, between high housing values and its huge commercial tax base, the city has lots of property wealth. That translates to city taxpayers being responsible for a large share of the school budget.
Boston has also seen a steep drop in enrollment, losing 4,500 students between 2021 and 2023. So despite its large numbers of low-income students and English language learners, Boston has gotten only the minimum aid increase of $90 per student between 2021 and 2023, an extra $5.3 million. Cambridge is in a similar position, as a district with high-needs students and wealthy taxpayers. Cambridge saw a per pupil increase of $199 over two years.
Tracy Novick, field director for the Massachusetts Association of School Committees and a Worcester school committee member, said one related trend she is seeing is communities that are high poverty but with declining enrollment – places like Orange or Malden – had been stalled in how much education aid they were getting. Now, those communities are starting to get some additional aid because the allocation for poor students increased so significantly. This is also the dynamic at play in Chelsea, where the millions of dollars in new state aid have come despite an enrollment decline of 200 students over the last two years.
The state also changed the way it counted low-income students in 2021-2022, which translated into adjustments in aid for the current year. Rather than simply counting students who get public assistance, it let school districts submit additional information proving a family is low-income, even if they do not get public assistance. Some communities made a bigger effort to accurately count low-income students. For example, Barnstable counted an additional 650 students as low-income, which vastly increased its aid distribution.
On the other side of the ledger, there are 141 communities that got two years of only minimum aid increases, and another 105 communities that got one year increase at the minimum aid level and a second year with a larger increase, according to Bump’s data.
Some of these minimum aid communities are wealthier – places like Weston or Newton. But others are less wealthy rural communities in western or central Massachusetts or on Cape Cod. Most of the state’s regional school districts got only the minimum aid increase.
The reason is most regional and rural schools are in the “hold harmless” category because of declining enrollment. That has created other funding problems that rural policymakers have long tried to draw attention to, which are not directly addressed in the Student Opportunity Act.
Maureen Marshall, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Regional Schools, said the problem for regional schools is the funding formula is based on a 2,500-pupil district, with the class sizes and student-teacher ratios that a district of that size can offer. That is different from a district like Pioneer Valley Regional School District, which has fewer than 700 students spread across four towns and three school buildings. Marshall said the minimum aid amount may pay for a first-grade teacher in a classroom with 22 students – but is insufficient when the first-grade class has 12 students. “The current foundation budget was not developed with the complexities and challenges of regional school districts in mind,” Marshall said.
As money is flowing, the next question becomes how communities are using it to improve student achievement. This is particularly important in light of pandemic-related learning loss, which has led to declining test scores.
The Student Opportunity Act requires the state to set measurable targets for closing achievement gaps, and requires districts to say how they will use the money to achieve those goals. But Lambert, the Mass. Business Alliance for Education leader, said the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education still has not spelled out the targets, and district plans for using the money are incomplete. Lambert’s group studied the plans of the 20 communities getting the most Student Opportunity Act money.
The most common use of money listed in these plans was for supporting students with disabilities and English language learners in their classrooms, with 14 districts putting more than $22 million combined toward these purposes. Other common uses were for instituting pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds, supporting educators in implementing curriculum, diversifying the workforce through recruitment, and expanding capacity to address students’ mental health and social/emotional needs.
The review found that most plans, however, did not explain how the district was using at least half its money. Brockton, for example, got more than $23 million but accounted for just $1.2 million in its report to the state.
Lambert said if a district does not spell out how it will use at least half of the funding “we’re not sure how [the state education department] could sign off and say the plan is compliant.”“We don’t believe the Legislature, in asking for how districts will spend their money, thought it would be okay to tell us how they were spending 5 percent of it as opposed to a larger amount,” Lambert said.