Outdated formula yields have and have-not schools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  This is largely because our districts have vastly different resources and opportunities as a result of our state’s outdated funding formula.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  This budget, however, is grossly out of date, particularly in its estimation of cost for health insurance and special education, both of which are required spending categories for school districts.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.