School advocates call Baker’s funding proposal inadequate 

Say more money is needed to fully fund ed reform 

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER said Wednesday that his budget proposal for next year fully funds the first year of the Student Opportunity Act, the overhaul of the state’s education funding formula that was supposed to have gone into effect this year. But some public school advocates say the governor’s level of funding is inadequate to meet students’ needs, and the allocation should be bigger to make up for the delayed implementation. 

We’re a year behind in fulfilling the promise of the Student Opportunity Act, so especially with all the increased educational, social, and emotional safety needs, we need to catch up and not be starting a year late,” said Lisa Guisbond, president of the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance, a teachers union-backed organizing group. 

Baker’s fiscal 2022 budget proposal includes a $197.7 million increase in state Chapter 70 education aid, bringing the total K-12 school aid to $5.48 billion.  

The Student Opportunity Act envisions a seven-year phase in period. The $197.7 million designated by Baker is one-seventh of the cost of phasing in all of the law’s changes: more money for districts with high concentrations of poverty, more money for English language learners, and more realistic costs for special education services and employee health benefits. The budget also changes the way the number of low-income students is calculated, which will give the poorest districts more money. (The budget proposal also includes increases of $22.5 million for special education reimbursements and $26.1 million for charter school tuition, in accordance with the new law.) Every district will get at least $30 per pupil in additional aid. 

Baker said he is “keeping our commitment to local districts” by fully funding the law. 

But not everyone agrees. The Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance wrote a letter to Baker asking that he fully fund the first two years of the new formula, rather than just the first year. The new formula was supposed to be funded for the first time in 2021, but Baker and the Legislature deferred that due to the COVID-19 outbreak, which strained state resources. MEJA argues that because Baker skipped the first year of funding, he should now make up for it. Advocates said this could be done all at once or by spreading out the first year’s costs evenly across the remaining six years.  

Colin Jones, senior policy analyst at the liberal-leaning Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, said the state is now behind on the Student Opportunity Act. “This proposal’s not catching us up. What it’s doing is really pushing everything back a year,” Jones said. “Everything about the difficulties schools are facing, all of that suggests let’s get back on track with the timeline that’s intended.” The Student Opportunity Act’s vision, he said, was to fully fund the new formula by 2027. 

Another concern is whether the formula should be funded based on 2020-2021 enrollment numbers. 

When Baker first proposed funding the initial year of the Student Opportunity Act, in January 2020, he recommended allocating an additional $303.8 million – and some advocates said the number should have been even higher, based on how he was calculating funding for poor students.  

According to the Executive Office for Administration and Finance, the number is significantly lower this year because inflation is lower, but also because the public schools lost 37,000 students this year. Because the formula is based on enrollment, a drop in enrollment loosely translates to a drop in funding, although there are some hold harmless provisions to avoid having districts lose money.  

While the October 1 enrollment numbers form the basis for the education funding formula every year, some advocates question whether they are the right numbers to use this year, since the drop is likely temporary, due to the pandemic. 

“I do believe, post pandemic, those kids are going to be back in our schools,” said Beth Kontos, president of the American Federal of Teachers Massachusetts. “I would prefer to look at pre-pandemic numbers and base the budget on that.” 

About half the drop is in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten, where children may be staying home. There has also been a jump in enrollment in private schools and homeschooling. Many of these students are expected to return to the public school system once full in-person schooling resumes.  

“When you build that into the count, you’re baking in a bunch of problems,” Jones said of the 2020 enrollment numbers. “You’re artificially having a lower foundation budget than you would have otherwise.” 

If the students do return, they will be included in the October count next year, which means full funding for them will be restored the following year.  

Baker and Secretary of Administration and Finance Michael Heffernan stressed that schools are also getting an influx in federal money. Massachusetts expects to receive $1 billion from the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, which schools can use for coronavirus-related expenses.  

But advocates say that is different from basic operating money. “One-time federal funding is helpful for funding emergency safety measures like surveillance testing and PPE, but it’s no replacement for the long-term investments we need in our schools, such as guidance counselors, nurses, ELL and special education services, and other resources and supplies for students’ everyday needs,” the MEJA letter says. 

Not all advocates are upset with Baker’s proposal. Ed Lambert, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, said he is pleased that Baker is putting Student Opportunity Act funding back on track. “That’s something just a few short months ago no one was really sure the Commonwealth would be able to do,” Lambert said. 

While Lambert said he would support further accelerating funding, “the governor and legislative leaders have to decide if they can afford to do that.” 

Lambert added that another lingering question is how districts will use the money. Districts were initially required to submit plans last April detailing how they would use the extra money to close achievement gaps, but due to the coronavirus, the deadline got pushed off. The three-year plans should have been submitted to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education by January 15. 

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Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Keri Rodrigues, founder of Massachusetts Parents United, an education reform organization with foundation backing, said her group will be looking closely at those plans to make sure districts are held accountable for how they use the money. “The law is the law. These things are due, and regardless of the pandemic we have the expectation there’s going to be plans for how money is utilized,” Rodrigues said. “Blank checks do not work.”