School funding fix needed

State failing its constitutional obligation to public education

PUBLIC SCHOOLS TODAY find themselves under a microscope and pulled by competing forces like never before. Education is a system in flux as it strives to institute necessary change in order to effectively meet the demands of today’s students and society.

Change never comes without cost, be that time, money, resources, or personnel. These elements are intricately tied together and essential for productive organizations to function effectively. The number and pace of regulations to which educators and schools must respond continues to increase at an alarming rate. The problem is that state and federal revenue has not kept pace with the burdens created by these demands.

The early 1990s saw a major change in the delivery of educational services we provided to the children in this state. When talking about education, policy makers often point out that the development of Massachusetts statewide standards for teaching and learning, together with assessment of those standards through a standardized state test, propelled our Commonwealth from a good educational system to a great one that leads the country and is competitively ranked among the best in the world.

However, what is often discounted, or at best downplayed, is the massive increase in state money and resources that accompanied that change in practice.

We now find ourselves in a similar situation as faced our Commonwealth in the early 1990s with the Foundation Budget Review Commission finding that schools in Massachusetts are underfunded by billions of dollars. The commission found that health insurance and benefits expenses exceed the allowance in the foundation budget by $1.2 billion. Special education costs exceed what is allowed in the foundation budget by over $1 billion.

In the 1993 case of McDuffy v. Secretary of the Executive Office of Education, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held that the education clause of our Commonwealth’s Constitution is not “merely aspirational or hortatory, but also imposes on the Commonwealth an enforceable duty to provide an education for all its children, rich and poor, in every city and town through the public schools.” We can only hope that it won’t take a looming court case like McDuffy to spur necessary action now.

This year, the governor’s budget proposes an increase of $20 per student in Chapter 70 funding. Although this comes to millions of dollars at the state level and sounds impressive when considered in the aggregate, when parsed out and distributed across the state it is woefully inadequate to the task we are being asked to accomplish. Here in Ludlow, for example, this proposed increase would garner us approximately $52,000 in additional school funding.

To put that in perspective, the proposed 2018 budget for our district of roughly 2,600 students is $33,674,143. Just to maintain the current level services, we would have to increase spending the following year by $877,834, and that figure does not include increases in health insurance costs.

It costs money to institute systemic changes, yet the funding we are receiving from the state makes it challenging to even maintain the status quo, let alone change the system. Currently, the flaws in the state funding formula, coupled with insufficient financial support at the state level, merely shift the burden to adequately fund our schools from the state to local municipalities.

What is the practical impact of that problem for us? It means that flaws in the foundation budget formula result in an ever increasing gap between what the state says is the minimum amount required to operate a school system (net school spending requirement) and what it actually takes to run a district. Many factors are exacerbating that discrepancy and these problems are clearly outlined in the foundation budget review commission report.

Insufficient state financial support is creating, once again, a disparity and equity problem between those more affluent communities that can support additional funds above the net school spending requirement and those that are in weaker financial positions. This equity issue is a multi-faceted problem as the disparity is driven by different factors depending upon the communities involved.

In our rural areas where there are little if any commercial interests, the primary source of local funding is residential property taxes. This dynamic is causing those taxes to increase dramatically while seriously curtailing local towns’ and schools’ ability to appropriate needed funds due to the shortfall in state support. A declining student population in many rural areas of the state is adding to the financial challenges faced in these localities.

In our urban centers, the challenges of school districts being forced to fill the gaps left by underfunded social service agencies are straining the available resources. Adding an additional financial burden in a number of these urban centers are the recent changes in the funding formula for economically disadvantaged students. The change in the way these students are accounted for by the formula has led to a situation where the number of these students in several districts is being dramatically under-counted, resulting in the loss of substantial funds. This problem has been recognized by state regulatory authorities and yet a remedy to this problem has yet to be developed.

As the gap widens between the net school spending requirement and actual costs, those of us advocating for our schools at the local level are facing an increasingly uphill battle. As we advocate for support of our local budget we experience understandable resistance in our communities as we argue for budgets that are millions of dollars above the net school spending requirement.This leads to the inaccurate perception that we are not managing our funds effectively. While we can explain that the formula is flawed, that explanation has difficulty resonating when held up against the millions of dollars many towns are spending above the net spending requirement. Each year as that gap widens that challenge increases.

In 1993, the Massachusetts Legislature showed great fortitude and foresight in developing a seven year plan to bring state funding up to appropriate levels. It is time for that again. It is time that we fund education to the amounts indicated by the Foundation Budget Review Commission established by the state to research this very topic. It is time that we live up to the obligations we have already made, such as fully funding special education circuit breaker accounts, regional transportation, and charter school reimbursement prior to creating additional requirements necessitating the commitment of additional financial resources.

Those of us responsible for local educational and municipal decision making and the management of resources in our districts and towns understand the challenges of the current political environment, both locally and at the federal level. However, there is only so much we can do at the local level to redistribute, reallocate, and repurpose scarce resources.

Meet the Author

Todd Gazda

Superintendent, Ludlow Public Schools
Massachusetts continues to be a leader in public education and the model to which the country looks for guidance. It is time that we demonstrate once again the political willpower to live up to the duty clearly articulated in our state constitution, reinforced by McDuffy, that our state must “provide an education for all its children, rich and poor, in every city and town through the public schools.”

Todd Gazda is superintendent of the Ludlow Public Schools.