Schools need more funds

Providing adequate resources for public education is not just a public policy goal, it is also the law. The Education Reform Act of 1993 made an unambiguous promise to public school students in the Commonwealth: that it would provide “a consistent commitment of resources sufficient to provide a high quality public education to every child.”

To meet this commitment, the Reform Act established a new system of education finance, the centerpiece of which is the “foundation budget.” The foundation budget determines the minimum level of school expenditure necessary for an adequate education. The Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) has put forward a proposal to raise that funding level, arguing that the foundation budget in its current form is not adequate to provide the education promised to every child by law.

In his otherwise useful overview of issues regarding the distribution of local education aid under the state’s education finance formula (“Wheel of Fortune,” Fall 2001), Secretary of Administration and Finance Stephen P. Crosby dismisses the MTA proposal out of hand, rather than addressing its substance. It may be helpful, therefore, to provide an overview of the MTA proposal, filed in the Legislature by Rep. John Slattery (D-Peabody) and Sen. Joan Menard (D-Somerset). Before doing so, however, an apparent misconception in Secretary Crosby’s article must be addressed.

According to Secretary Crosby, the claim made by “some advocates…that each and every district [is] still underfunded by 50 percent to 100 percent…” is contradicted by the “massive increase in aid since 1993.” The $1.9 billion growth in aid since FY93 and the adequacy of current spending, however, are two distinct issues. The increase in aid since the onset of education reform has helped bring all districts to foundation spending levels, but many districts are still underfunded because the foundation budget itself is not adequate.

The foundation budget needs to be recalculated.

The Education Reform Act’s foundation budget was established prior to the development and implementation of curriculum frameworks, Time and Learning requirements, and MCAS–that is, before the state had established just what a high-quality public education was. It was also set without benefit of the most recent and most useful research on the effect of small class size in the early grades on student achievement. After eight years of education reform, the foundation budget needs to be recalculated based on what the state has determined must be taught to all students, and on what we now know works in education.

In addition, services ranging from early-childhood education to MCAS remediation have been funded outside the foundation-budget process, but at levels insufficient to meet the pressing need. They, too, need to be calculated into the standard of educational adequacy.

Based on a review of current educational research and on the judgment of classroom professionals as to the cost of teaching to Massachusetts’s state standards, the MTA proposes the following adjustments to components of the foundation budget:

  • Maximum class size of 15 in grades K-3. This recommendation reflects the findings of the Tennessee Project STAR study, which demonstrate that students in smaller classes do better in reading and mathematics than their counterparts in larger classes, and that achievement gains in the early grades persist throughout students’ school years.

  • Full-day kindergarten in all school districts. Currently, only about 140 districts and charter schools offer this service.

  • Pre-school programs for all 3- and 4-year-olds. Research indicates that the benefits of early childhood education and full-day kindergarten include higher achievement and reduced grade retention. Currently, some pre-school programs are provided through other state funding, but not enough for all children.

  • Higher state funding for special education. Currently, special-education funding is based on an inaccurate estimate of the proportion of students receiving services, rather than the actual number, and an allotment for out-of-district placements that is far below the actual cost.

  • Higher allowances for teacher salaries, including a required minimum salary of $40,000. In fiscal 2001, the foundation-budget salary assumption was approximately $45,000, compared with an estimated actual statewide average salary of close to $48,000. The average starting teacher salary that year was $29,000. Preliminary findings from a study done for the MTA indicate that teachers receive average weekly salaries 30 percent lower than those of other Massachusetts employees with a bachelor’s or master’s degree. For professionals with a master’s degree, the gap is about 40 percent. With this kind of wage disadvantage, the Commonwealth will face increasing difficulty attracting highly qualified candidates into what is now a graying teacher work force.

  • Alternative education programs. Currently, there is just a small state-funded program ($1 million in fiscal 2001) for students whose behavior in regular classes interferes with learning.

  • Programs for students who fail at least one MCAS subject area. The state budget currently provides $40 million for this purpose, but MCAS remediation programs are not integrated into the standard of adequate education. The MTA plan would require all districts to provide special programs to help students meet academic standards.

Meet the Author
The MTA originally envisioned that its proposal would be phased in over a five-year period. At the end of that phase-in, the state would be spending $2.2 billion on education over current levels. Given the emerging state fiscal crisis, however, the state should consider an alternative approach that nonetheless keeps the goal of moving toward an adequate funding level in the forefront. This might entail, for example, a longer phase-in or a phase-in beginning with the most underserved communities. In any case, a renewed multiyear funding commitment is essential to reaching this new standard of educational adequacy.

MTA members and other education professionals embrace the challenge of helping students achieve the high academic standards set by the state. But the state and local communities have both a moral and legal obligation to provide the resources students require to meet those standards. As decision-makers consider changes to the foundation-budget formula, they should not limit themselves to the question of how state aid dollars should be distributed. Rather, they must address an issue of paramount importance: adequate funding for the kind of education the Commonwealth demands.

Stephen E. Gorrie is president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.