Outdated formula yields have and have-not schools

Outdated formula yields have and have-not schools

Teacher witnessed it first-hand in Waltham, Lawrence

I TEACH SIXTH GRADE for the Waltham Public Schools.  Recently, I got 50 new books for my class, enough for all of my students to use and to take home for reading homework.  The purchase reminded me of the time when I was teaching in Lawrence Public Schools and had asked for new books.  Instead, I was encouraged to photocopy excerpts of novels because purchasing a class set was not financially feasible.  The contrast between Waltham and Lawrence is stark.  Waltham is resource-rich with classrooms capped at 25 students and Chromebooks for every student.  In Lawrence, classes often have between 30 and 35 students, and teachers split Chromebooks for lessons when the Wi-Fi works.

Having taught in both Waltham and Lawrence, it is no surprise to me that Massachusetts, which boasts the highest test scores in the nation, also has one of the largest achievement gaps between its affluent and poor students.  This is largely because our districts have vastly different resources and opportunities as a result of our state’s outdated funding formula.

This formula, called the foundation budget, sets a minimum school-spending requirement based on the district’s student population and the reasonable amount of money a district can contribute to that cost.  This budget, however, is grossly out of date, particularly in its estimation of cost for health insurance and special education, both of which are required spending categories for school districts.  As a result, schools often cut into their budgets for teachers, materials, technology, and professional development to supplement these costs.

Wealthy districts are able to cope by contributing more local funds in excess of their required foundation budget, but high poverty districts cannot.  On top of this, the current formula also underestimates the cost of education for high poverty students and English Language Learners, many of whom are clustered in large concentrations in the cities in Massachusetts that are already strapped financially.  The end result is that students across the state have very different access to resources and very different educational experiences.

For instance, in 2015, Lawrence spent approximately $15,000 per student, and was right at its foundation budget level.  Waltham, on the other hand, spent approximately $19,940 per student, and exceeded its minimum-spending requirement by one and half times, something not feasible for Lawrence.  Lawrence also has a large population of students who live in poverty as well as English Language Learners;  Waltham does not.  While Lawrence receives additional funding to support programs these students need, the costs are still underestimated when you consider the strain put on the budget by health care and special education costs.  The students in Lawrence need much more than the bare bones budget put in place by our current formula in order to receive a comparable education to their peers in Waltham.

The result? They don’t.  Students in Waltham are able to choose from an array of elective options, such as art, band, chorus, technology, or foreign language, while my former students in Lawrence can only choose art or gym. While Waltham is able to staff three counselors for its middle school, the middle school I worked for in Lawrence had just one.  Our system ends up being excellent for some, but not all, of the deserving students across the Commonwealth.

All students in Massachusetts must have access to a high quality education and it is urgent that we update the school budget formula.  Here are a few ways we can support the process right now:

  • Educate yourself about the resources within your town and school district by reaching out to school leaders and teachers.  Ask them whether or not they’ve had to cut programs they found beneficial or how they might spend funds based upon realistic estimates of costs rather than the outdated estimates of our current systems.
  • Advocate to change the school budget formula through your school committee.  The Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC) has made it easy to check whether or not your school district or city council has recommended changes to the budget with this tool.
  • Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz has proposed updating the budget through Senate bill 223, an Act Modernizing the Foundation Budget for the 20th Century.  This bill would more realistically estimate the cost of health care, special education programs, English as a Second Language programs, and education of high poverty students.  Contact your representatives and urge them to co-sign the bill.

No doubt, Massachusetts will continue to receive accolades for its public education system, as it enables some students to thrive.  However, to be a truly great system, we must be great for all.  There are amazing things happening in Lawrence, particularly in terms of attendance and academic growth.  However, from my time in both districts, I perceive large differences in resource allocation, especially in terms of access to classroom materials, class size, elective classes, and access to support staff such as counselors.

Meet the Author

Maggie Simeone

Sixth grade teacher, Waltham Public Schools
Lawrence is still not receiving comparable education resources to peers in other, wealthier districts; the state can mitigate that, at least in part, by adjusting its funding formula to more realistically estimate costs.  Just imagine how much more progress the students of Lawrence and other Gateway Cities could be making if they and their teachers were provided with the funding and support that they need to close the achievement gap in our Commonwealth.  From Lawrence to Waltham, all kids deserve access to books, computers, and art classes.  Updating our state’s school funding formula is a critical step in this process.

Maggie Simeone teaches 6th grade English Language Arts at the John W. McDevitt Middle School in Waltham.  She is a Teach Plus Commonwealth Teaching Policy Fellow.

  • It’s interesting to see an article on this site simultaneously discussing how school rankings have little meaning. The same can be said of budgets. Perhaps the state should be micromanaging in a more effective and useful way. For example, all teachers can get new books every three years. All students get chrome books. Special need students get x resources. English as a second language get y resources. That would eliminate town to town discrepancies. The budget would then be built from needs, not tax revenues. It seems to me that we have the cart before the horse in many areas of public policy, where we are a slave to the numbers rather than their masters. Kudos to the author for not leaving Lawrence behind and taking the time to advocate for equality. Teachers should not have to leave a place because of a frustration with the lack of resources to do their job properly. (Note, I am speculating on why she changed. It actually makes no difference. But if the teachers have obstacles, inevitably the kids have more).

    • Mhmjjj2012

      Back in 1993 the Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favor of students in property poor cities and towns finding the education clause in the Massachusetts Constitution imposes an enforceable duty on the state to provide an education for all its children, rich and poor, in every city and town. As a result of that ruling the state enacted the Education Reform Act of 1993 establishing the Foundation Budget…the mechanism distributing state aid to local public school districts. That should have ensured sufficient resources to all public schools in Massachusetts but a report released in 2015 by the Foundation Budget Review Commission found the Foundation Budget needs to be fixed and fully funded in particular when it comes to special education (in-district/out-of-district), low income students , English language learning students and health insurance. The saddest part is the Foundation Budget is only one of at least 8 program areas or budget line items where the state is not meeting its financial obligations to local public schools.

  • jeanabeana

    “The contrast between Waltham and Lawrence is stark. ” I share your thoughts; I taught for 10 years in Sudbury and then for the remainder of my career worked in the Merrimack Valley, The politicians love to brag that MA is #1 in test scores; but they never tell you we are more like #28 in equity. Lowell and Brockton are on a national list of the schools that are most “screwed over” (pardon the vernacular) whenit comes to funding . Why is it so hard for people to understand this? Today for one of the first times the real estate section of the Globe explained how rating the schools needs to be carefully examined. I know of families that bought $1 million dollar homes in Wayland for interest only payments and this was during the Great Recession. We read research reports that say something is the “best ever” for children /students but in the small print it tells you they came from homes where the income was $250,000. T hat kind of research does not apply to the students that I know . The cities just at the foundation budget (or like Haverhill just a smidgeon over the foundational level ) have to tax themselves disproportionally in order to make up shortfalls. When we did a 15 page study for the charter school examination in my city many of these factors came to light. And, Baker does not support the “Fair Share ” amendment and Pioneer Institute says all those millionaires will be moving? It’s time for some reality — my former supervisor did his doctoral work on this some time ago and yet the information is not widely shared. Current DESE policies punish the schools in the gateway cities — and they used flawed faulty tests with no reliability or validity.

  • jeanabeana

    not to leave out the “middle” income cities, when I visit children’s homes in Greater Boston and I see the chrome books in very bad state of disrepair I ask the student “how do you put in a work repair order to get the thing working again”. I have a colleague who teaches in 3 different community areas and she tells me the IT support in only one of the three meets a reasonable standard of what one could expect for students . It is not just the gateway cities that are feeing the crunch. All the state does lately is try to describe some funding mechanism or strategy based on Devos’ vouchers or the Walton Foundation scheme of “ESAs” or “hybrid portfolio charters” they have tested out in Lawrence. I don’t think those would fly in the Wayland/sudbury /Dover Sherborn. — but that is what the state will be pushing. In the meantime , DESE needs to stop using flawed , faulty tests; they sell them to parents stating they have predictive validity about how well your student will achieve and they have no predictive validity at all. The lower down in the grades you go, the less they predict anything at all. The DESE needs to be totally audited by Suzanne Bump and that includes the inter-and intra state funds that came in during the Duncan transition and were used to support the Pearson Corporation sales of products. Former Commissioner Chester went around the country to research conferences telling governors to buy Pearson products and tests for their “protocols” and to sign up with Jeb Bush. Sure you want that FL model for your schools in Massachusetts?

  • jeanabeana

    the only purpose for the DESE experimental tests is to convince people in wealthy communities they are the best in the world and will always be the “greatest”. With this giant experiment we have delivered “psychometric fudge” albeit — a very expensive variety.

    Developing tests for assessing student’s abilities has been a part of the American educational scene for over a century. There are proven and established psychometric techniques to establish high degrees of reliability and validity for tests/products as reported by technical manuals (see for example, IOWA Test , California Achievement Test , Stanford, Metropolitan, etc) the tests we took when we were in school. PARCC/MCAS and Smarter Balance should have (by now) established their evidence that they are proven tools for assessing students on credible “higher” standards — yet the experiment continues (at great expense) and they are hiring test coordinators to build the history/social studies test next.

    It is impossible to tell how accurate and precise these experimental tests are because evidence of their accuracy is not readily available. Publishers of these tests do make mistakes that are uncovered on occasion and revealed (less frequently) to the public paying the bill. Testing company (Pearson) fails to respond to objections from parents when they claim its tests are not adequate and when parents or students “opt out” the corporation is angry because they won’t have enough of the right guinea pigs to prove anything they do is valid or reliable anyway — so they won’t be able to sell their future products over and over across the country.

    Still a greater concern is the “cut scores” that determine proficiency levels and DESE establishes cut scores for MA schools. Setting cut scores is a subjective decision.

    Comparisons with other state testing programs could have provided relevant data for determining cost-effectiveness of the MA testing program. This would have brought true transparency to MA emerging experimental tests that assumed great weight and expense over these past several years. Perhaps for reasons of professional “jealousy” they have failed to do this?

    What do these experimental State test results tell us? Not a lot. It is a very blunt instrument…. with very little , if any, purpose for building IEPS, constructing curriculum or telling us what and how to teach in a more effective way. ….. I

    We need to be aggressively proactive in the public and political domain to CLARIFY all of these questions rather than keep gloating “we are Number #1.” The damage done to the integrity of student testing is a direct result of this controversy and presents a serious challenge for all our students and all the schools. There is even a group at the Fordham Institute (they push charter schools in OH) who say “christian countries score higher on the achievement tests”… This is absurd and needs to stop.

  • jeanabeana

    In addition to the outdated Foundation Budget (formula). we have the current realities — Looking ahead to next year, Governor Baker’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2019 includes only a tiny increase in funding for K-12 schools that is less than the growth in state revenues or inflation. Adjusted for inflation, state funding for our schools is below what it was in 2002. (Sen. Pat Jehlen, 2/2/18, “State could boost family housing if it committed more funding to schools,” Letter to the Editor, The Boston Globe)

  • jeanabeana

    with Baker /Peyser/Sagan in control this is what you can expect: “Nevadan Adam Laxalt, a rising star is expected to revive the state’s education savings accounts program if elected governor. The program uses public school funds to expand the state’s income-based private school vouchers, which divert funding from public schools. He also wants more publicly funded charter schools. “I am a supporter of Education Savings Accounts as part of my broad commitment to creating more school choice in Nevada. I am proud of the work my office did defending ESAs all the way to the Nevada Supreme Court,” said Laxalt in an interview.” University of Walton in Arkansas is pushing this constantly in Arizona — they “churn” the students to get an impression or appearance of higher test scores and then they push these mechanisms …. The state under Baker is not supporting the Fair Share Amendment or the Foundation Budget provisions (review of the funding formula). They have an ulterior motive and it is demonstrated by the choice of Riley from Lawrence as the Ed. Commissioner. Mitchell Chester was a bureaucrat but these are ideologues in charge.