Ed funding problem most acute in low-income communities

Revised formula could greatly benefit Gateway Cities

IT’S A PROMISING SIGN that fixing how Massachusetts funds our K-12 schools has moved to the top of the agenda on Beacon Hill. The governor and Legislature acknowledge that the time has come to address the outdated Chapter 70 formula, which has shortchanged students across the Commonwealth, particularly those in middle- and low-income school districts that lack the resources to make up for funding gaps.

At stake in this debate is fundamental fairness. If we are committed to giving every kid in the Commonwealth equal opportunity for a world-class public education, then bold action — a real commitment to investing more dollars in public education — is required.

Making the investments needed to give all students the quality education they deserve could mean upwards of $1 billion in new school aid across the state, depending on how the Legislature moves forward. Over half of this new funding, under realistic scenarios, could reach our Gateway Cities, among the communities hardest hit by current shortfalls.

Public education in Massachusetts was conceived as the “great equalizer” of society, offering high achievement to kids of all backgrounds. If these reforms come to pass we can realize a future where every school, not just those in our wealthiest communities, can invest in critical areas such as teacher training, curriculum development, and modern learning facilities. There also will be unique opportunities to ensure that schools serving our young people facing the most obstacles, including low-income children and children of color, can offer the kind of services that evidence says will help kids thrive. These offerings include enhanced early childhood programs, wraparound health and social services integrated with education, expanded after-school and summer enrichment, and career and vocational training for teenagers.

Our report from last summer, Building an Education System that Works for Everyone, highlights the flaws of the current system and lays out the options for modernizing our funding formula. Our data make plain that the funding disparities among districts in Massachusetts are profound.

The steady erosion of the current formula is illustrated by the fact that almost half the Commonwealth’s school districts spend less on regular education teachers than the formula calls for and 88 percent of districts spend less than called for on materials such as books, school supplies, and computers.

How did we get here? Because the current formula dramatically underestimates health insurance and special education costs, by $2.63 billion in FY 2017 alone. This means districts have much less funding than necessary to pay for regular classroom needs.

These funding problems affect all districts but are most acute in lower-income communities that rarely have the resources to make up for shortfalls the way wealthier communities can. When state aid and local contributions do not cover actual costs, districts are not able to hire the number of teachers called for in the formula or provide adequate resources for their students’ needs.

As a result, the Commonwealth’s lowest-wealth districts spend 32 percent less on regular classroom teachers than dictated in the foundation budget, the state’s definition of adequate spending. Springfield, one of our lowest-income districts, was only able to spend $12,800 per pupil in 2017, despite having significant student needs. This translates to larger class sizes and fewer specialties like advanced coursework and the arts.

Meanwhile, the highest-income districts can make up for the flaws in the state formula by spending 48 percent more than their foundation budgets using local sources. In FY 2017, Brookline, among the wealthiest communities, spent 82 percent above its foundation budget, at nearly $17,500 per student.

Meet the Author
Meet the Author

Colin Jones

Senior policy analyst, Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center
These inequalities have a detrimental effect on all of us. However, making reforms that better support a well-educated workforce can benefit everyone through a more successful state economy. Sustaining a strong economy in our Commonwealth requires that all children can access a high quality education — regardless of where they live.

As the Legislature and the governor introduce new funding proposals, like those presented in the past few weeks and those now emerging, our state can seize the greatest opportunity in a generation to enrich the potential of kids across the Commonwealth. Our legacy as an education leader and the future of Massachusetts youth are at stake.

Marie-Frances Rivera is the interim president and Colin Jones is senior policy analyst at the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.