Shortchanging English learners and low-income students

Our school funding formula desperately needs an update

“CHELSEA PUBLIC SCHOOLS is a gateway school system that welcomes and educates ALL students and families.”

This quote, from superintendent Mary Bourque, is prominently displayed on the Chelsea Public Schools webpage. It’s what made me excited to accept an offer with the district four years ago, and something that has taken on particular resonance for me in the years since.

The sentiment has contributed to making Chelsea Public Schools the district with the highest population of English language learner (ELL) students in the state. Twenty-two of the twenty-five students in my third grade class come from Spanish-speaking homes; only one comes from a family that speaks only English. This gives my class a sense of culture and community. We read books with Spanish-speaking characters, like Arthur Dorros’ Abuela, and my students translate the Spanish phrases for their non-Spanish speaking classmates. In math class, they shout out that 3 x 5 equals “quince.” At our yearly Family Cultural Night, we eat homemade pupusas and tamales together. When a new student joined my class a few weeks ago, the first thing my students asked was if he spoke Spanish.

Our mission to welcome and educate all students is one of the things that makes Chelsea great. But it is also something for which we get punished financially. This year, Chelsea Public Schools faces a $3.1 million budget gap between what students need and what the district is able to spend. This gap is in large part due to two issues with state funding, both of which have to do, in part, with our large immigrant population.

First, baseline funding for schools in Massachusetts is determined by a formula called the foundation budget. Established in 1993 as part of the Education Reform Act, the foundation budget allots a certain amount of money per district, based on the circumstances and needs of each student. The formula has not been updated since 1993. In this time, the population in Massachusetts has changed, and so have the needs of its students. By some estimates the state is underfunding education by $1 billion to $2 billion due to the outdated formula.

For example, the state ELL population has doubled since 1993. Without accounting for this change, the state underestimates the current number of ELL students (among other groups), and is not funding our schools to meet their needs. In Chelsea, where we currently educate 2,357 ELL students—up from 933 in 1993—we are punished with inadequate funding. For example, at my school, we are currently only able to staff two ELL teachers for 188 ELL students.

At the same time, in 2016, the state changed the way it identified economically disadvantaged students in the state. Rather than count the number of students in a district who receive free or reduced price lunch, the state switched to counting students who receive aid from state-run programs such as SNAP, TANF, or MassHealth. These are programs that immigrants, legal or not, do not qualify for until they’ve been in the country for five years. In Chelsea, 1,825 low-income students were erased from our low-income population in one year, resulting in a loss of over $2 million in funding. Again, punished for welcoming and educating all students.

These are problems that can be fixed. Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz has introduced a bill in the state Senate to modernize the foundation budget to meet the current needs of the state. Write your legislators to encourage them to support the bill, SB 2325. Write your legislators to tell them that the formula to determine economically disadvantaged students needs to be changed, so that immigrant students aren’t excluded from a source of funding because they haven’t been in this country long enough. Finally, this November, vote for the Fair Share Amendment, which will earmark $2 billion of state funds for education and transportation.

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Meanwhile in Chelsea, we will continue to welcome and educate all students, regardless of how well we are funded to do so. Our students shouldn’t be punished for this decision.

Joanna Plotz teaches 3rd grade at the William A. Berkowitz Elementary School in Chelsea. She is a Teach Plus Commonwealth Teaching Policy Fellow.