Commission says state underfunds schools

By Gerry Tuoti | Nov 03, 2015

The state’s 22-year-old school funding formula understates the true cost of public education by more than $1 billion annually, according to a group of lawmakers and education experts who unveiled a new plan Nov. 2.

“We’ve been seeing increasing warning signs in recent years: accumulating school budget cuts, the fraying of the system that’s brought us so far since 1993, stagnant achievement gaps, growing social inequality,” said state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, D-Jamaica Plain, Senate co-chair of the group.

The Foundation Budget Review Commission, a group created by the state Legislature, gathered at the State House to release its report on updating the school funding formula. The report’s recommendations, if adopted, would significantly overhaul the formula for the first time since it was adopted as part of the state’s 1993 Education Reform Act.

Implementing the report’s recommendations to address health insurance and special education costs would result in a $431.7 million increase in Chapter 70 education aid statewide, while districts across Massachusetts would see their required contributions to their school budgets rise by a combined $136 million.

Arlington receives $10.7 million in Chapter 70 aid from the state and $6.9 million in unrestricted government aid. The town budgeted $55 million for its public schools in fiscal 2015.

In a recent survey created by the Arlington School Committee, parents were posed a question on how they'd spend a $1 million windfall from Beacon Hill.

The overwhelming first choice across all levels of schools was to add more classroom teachers, with 27 percent of the vote. Elementary school parents' second and third choices were split between adding language in elementary school and making the school day longer.

High school and middle school parents wanted more math coaches and an increase in technology. For high school parents, eliminating sports and music fees came in as the fourth priority, at 11 percent.

Evolving budgetary pressures over the past 22 years make changes necessary, commission members said. The new formula, they said, would more-accurately reflect the costs of health insurance and special education, while providing more funding to school districts with high concentrations of low-income students and students in English Language Learners programs.

“Millions of dollars across the commonwealth will be freed up to be spent on what our students need,” said state Rep. Alice Peisch, D-Wellesley, the House co-chair of the commission.

Fall River Education Association president Rebecca Cusick, who taught for 22 years, said new resources could be used to reduce class sizes, increase extended-day programs and expand support networks for students with emotional needs.

“The needs of children in gateway communities like mine are significant and are getting more significant every day,” she said. “Many of our students live in economic insecurity, and they deal with the chronic stress associated with the stresses of poverty. Additional resources would be a huge benefit to us in meeting the needs of our most vulnerable students and allowing them to focus on their education.”

Rising costs for employee health insurance coverage and special education have led to drastically increased non-discretionary spending in school districts over the past several years. Those fixed costs, commission members said, have eaten up funding initially intended for use in the classroom and on student services.

“Resources make a difference,” said commission member Barbara Madeloni of Northampton, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the largest teachers union in the state. “It’s the difference between 40 children or 18 children in a kindergarten class. It’s the difference between a full-day kindergarten program or not having a full-day kindergarten program. It’s the difference between having access to a variety and range of curricula or not having that.”

Under the commission’s plan, the revamped funding formula would use actual averages from the Group Insurance Commission -- the insurance plan for state employees -- to calculate a school district’s insurance costs and associated inflation rates. The commission also recommended tweaking the formula to more accurately portray the number of students in in-district and out-of-district special education placements.

The new formula would increase the weighting given to English Language Learners to better reflect the level of resources districts often need to commit to helping those students become proficient in English.

The report also calls for a new tiered system that would increase funding given for low-income students in school districts with high concentrations of poverty.

Under the state’s Education Reform Act of 1993, a complex formula is used to set each district’s foundation budget, which consists of state aid and local funding. Each district has a minimum amount it is legally required to spend on education, and many school districts already spend in excess of what’s required.

“We saw over 160 school districts across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts are well in excess of the minimum school spending requirement that is placed upon all districts in Massachusetts,” said Attleboro Mayor Kevin Dumas, the Massachusetts Municipal Association’s appointee to the commission.

While many school districts would see their local contributions to the school budget increase under the new formula, many of the state’s most cash-strapped districts would likely benefit from increased state funding, Peisch said.

The report also calls for the increased tracking of data to better understand which types of investments in education work or don’t work.

“When we go to the taxpayers and ask them to increase their investments in the commonwealth’s K-to-12 system, we have to be able to tell them we’re doing the best we can with the dollars that we have,” Department of Elementary and Secondary of Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester said.

The commission was not charged with creating a funding plan or identifying funding sources.

Chang-Diaz encouraged her fellow legislators to adopt the new funding formula.

“We really do urge the legislature to act with urgency in taking up these recommendations,” Chang-Diaz said. “Districts today are really laboring under a formula whose assumptions are incorrect.”


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