School funding bill should be about more than money

Closing achievement gap will require bolder thinking about obstacles students face

THE SCHOOL FUNDING BILL being debated in the Legislature is about something much bigger than school funding. It’s about fixing the state’s most daunting problem:  the growing, intractable opportunity gap between the rich and poor. Yet many of the state’s progressives are sitting on the sidelines, content with legislation that misses a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address this problem.

In Massachusetts, we’re experiencing an ugly inversion of the American dream. More and more, one’s background determines one’s destiny: The children of wealthy families are far more likely to be wealthy themselves than the children of poorer ones, and increasingly so.

Why? Wealthier families pull strings for their children—for example, finding the right schools for them, supplementing that education with private-pay enrichment programs, using their networks to get them unpaid internships—that poorer families can’t easily pull. The result is that if you grow up in Needham you’ll on average earn nearly four times as much money in adulthood as if you grow up in downtown Holyoke, as research led by Raj Chetty at Harvard has shown.

I’ve seen the system in action from both sides, first as a teacher in the Boston Public Schools, observing the obstacles that students need to overcome to succeed, and now as a suburban parent, watching the race to give as many advantages as possible to children. It just doesn’t feel fair.

We know it’s possible to reverse this trend. Individual teachers and schools right here in Massachusetts have beat the odds to close achievement gaps between poor and wealthy – but no state or even district has ever done it at scale.

Massachusetts has an opportunity to be the first. There’s an emerging consensus to increase the state’s foundation budget, the minimum amount regarded necessary to fund an adequate education, by as much as $1 – 2 billion, or 20-40 percent of the total. This is a rare moment of largesse for our schools. Many on Beacon Hill want to push this additional funding through the same channels with no questions asked. This won’t work: We won’t solve a problem that’s never been solved before through business as usual. Rather, the funding increase needs to be tied to a blueprint for how Massachusetts is going to tackle achievement gaps.

What should be part of this blueprint? The big idea is that closing achievement gaps requires that schools take on broader purpose – not only delivering quality instruction, but replicating the complex sources of advantage given by wealthy, educated families to their children, bringing them to all students. We know of many programs that accomplish this. Early college lowers the cost of college, while showing low-income high school students “you’re college material,” a message many wealthier kids are instilled with from a young age. Extended class time, likewise, gives low-income students enriching academic experiences that wealthier students’ parents are buying through private tutoring programs. METCO (which now has a waiting list of 8,000) gives students seeking to leave segregated schools an opportunity to tap into the resources and networks of the state’s wealthy suburbs.

Funding increases should be tied to the expansion of these types of proven programs. They should also build structures for new gap-closing ideas to flourish and be replicated. Proposals for an innovation fund modeled on the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program and for Innovation Partnership Zones that build on successes in Lawrence and Springfield achieve this goal.

Massachusetts has the best-performing public schools in America, but we also have the most educated and nearly the wealthiest adult population in the country—those are big factors in our schools’ success. This is changing. All of the net enrollment growth in our schools going forward will come from students who are poor, whose parents didn’t attend college, and/or who don’t speak English at home.

Meet the Author
The school funding debate should be about these students who are the future of our state. Legislators need to back a clear vision for how we’ll do better by them.

Bill Triant, a former Boston Public Schools teacher, serves on the boards of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education and the Codman Academy Foundation and is a member of Boston Leaders for Education.