Time to update state school funding formula

The current system is leaving poor districts and high-needs students behind

FOR SOME POLICYMAKERS and the public, a billion-dollar budget such as the one granted to Boston Public Schools last fiscal year appears robust — even excessive. But teachers like me know that critical resources are in short supply. Every day, we feel the pinch: There aren’t enough support staff in the building, teachers use personal funds to buy needed classroom materials, and facilities are in disrepair.

At the heart of discrepancy between what we educators find inadequate and what municipal leaders see as prodigal is our state’s outdated funding formula that shortchanges districts serving students with the most need. The formula, which calculates need and distributes funding accordingly, was last updated in 1993. We must update the foundation formula to reflect the realities of the modern classroom and give every student the opportunity to succeed.

The fact is that our funding formula greatly miscalculated both the cost of employee health care as well as the cost associated with adequately educating students with special needs. In the last quarter century, health insurance premiums have skyrocketed. We’ve also made great strides in identifying and better supporting students with special needs. However, improved identification has also led to a much larger special needs population than policymakers predicted 24 years ago.

In 2015, a legislatively-appointed committee, the Massachusetts Foundation Budget Review Commission, concluded that a $2.1 billion gap exists between the projected costs to school districts and the actual funding that they currently receive. With these costs unaccounted for, Massachusetts schools are forced to compensate by reducing personnel, slashing programs, and decreasing wraparound services for vulnerable populations.

Recently, the state Senate unanimously approved the Act to Modernize the Foundation Budget. This legislation would update the state education funding formula, named Chapter 70, and bridge the discrepancies between the outdated funding formula, and the current price of educating students. If this bill moves through the Legislature and gains approval by the governor as it currently stands, it will mean that the state must increase spending on education by about $2 billion. While it is easy to get sticker shock, the unanimous approval from the Senate and my own classroom experience show that increasing spending on education is past due.

In 2015, for example, Boston Public Schools employed only 55 school psychologists for nearly 55,000 students, 11,000 of whom are estimated to have experienced trauma. Simply put, our outdated formula is preventing districts with low-income students and vulnerable populations from adequately supporting their students.

In my classroom this means that students who truly need counseling have to cope with trauma largely on their own. It also means increased student-to-teacher ratios, less preparation time for staff, and cuts in extracurricular programs for students. These shortcomings increase students’ and teachers’ stress levels, and lead to school environments that are not conducive to learning.

While Massachusetts ranks among the top states for the quality of its education, it has the second highest achievement gap in the country. The students that need the most help are left to fall further behind, in a large part due to the fact that our funding formula leaves school districts to fend for themselves.

Districts with a sufficient property tax base are able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and cover the funding gap. With no other options, low-income school districts are left to languish. Fall River and New Bedford, for example, have teachers and administrators that are dedicated, reflective, and diligent, but the lack of resources limits the impact they might otherwise be able to have. On average, Massachusetts communities spent 23 percent more than the initial foundation formula allocated. But districts with low-family incomes, such as New Bedford and Fall River, are unable to augment the state’s funds. As a result, districts serving the most high-poverty students — students who often need the most support — have the fewest resources to do so.

Meet the Author
Updating the state’s education funding formula will mean that my students will have more much-needed guidance counselors, books, and resources for learning. We have a responsibility to support all students by ensuring we have the resources needed to provide the quality education every child deserves.

Alycia Steelman is a Boston Public School teacher. She teaches 8th and 11th grade math in special education settings at the Dearborn STEM Academy. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence.