It took years of contentious, high-stakes political wrangling for Massachusetts legislators to finally agree on a plan to increase school funding by more than $1 billion, a huge boost for districts that enroll the state’s poorest students.
Now, less than three months after the groundbreaking Student Opportunity Act was signed into law at a jubilant celebration in a Boston high school gymnasium, doubt has already begun to bubble up about the state’s commitment to give schools with large numbers of low-income students what they are now owed.
Although tens of thousands more students would qualify as low-income under Governor Charlie Baker’s proposed budget, districts would get less additional money for each one of those students than they expected under the new law. Other categories of education spending targeted for investment, such as special education and English language learners, would get larger increments of the total new aid promised them.
An analysis of Baker’s plan by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center released Tuesday found that districts would receive $74 million less than expected for low-income students, a reduction that would be felt most keenly by so-called "gateway” cities serving large numbers of poor students.
“This is a clear perversion of what was intended,” said state Representative Natalie Higgins, a Leominster Democrat and member of the House committee that will draft its own budget proposal in the coming months. "It’s a gut punch for everyone who spent the last three years making sure we got this right, to [now] see disadvantaged students treated differently than everyone else.”
But Massachusetts Education Secretary James Peyser said Baker had no choice: The new law requires that increases in targeted budget areas be phased in equitably. And a more inclusive headcount of poor students triggers a funding surge so large that it would overwhelm the other categories, unless the amount spent per low-income child increased more gradually.
Peyser said feedback from legislative leaders suggests most lawmakers are comfortable with the plan. Even with the modified low-income rate, he said, the new spending on poor students would account for 18 percent of the total new targeted aid provided under the new law, compared with 14 percent for other categories.
Overall, Baker’s budget plan would flood school districts with more than $300 million in new support in 2021. Budget watchers acknowledge the enormous progress, but stressed the importance of giving the state’s poorest students what’s been promised — and the danger of postponing their rate increase, given the uncertainty of the state’s long-term economic prospects.
"We made a promise to our communities, and we need to keep that promise,” said Higgins.
In Leominster, where roughly half of students qualify as low income, schools would lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in new funding under the lower rate, she said. Because the district would receive less money than expected for each of its 2,900 poor students, she said, it would gain just $69,000 from school funding reform in its first year of implementation, instead of the $1 million in new aid that was forecast.
The governor’s plan assumes that more accurately counting all poor students "counteracts the need to raise low-income rates at the same level. . . . This defies the fact that both identification of low-income students and the adequate resources for each student are necessary to deliver appropriate services,” senior policy analyst Colin Jones wrote in the brief from the state budget and policy center.
Heath Fahle, director of policy and research for the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, said the current wrangling about the law’s intent will have long-lasting consequences, with the massive expansion of the education budget set to continue for the next seven years.
"The issue has always been the long-term affordability, and whether we could afford the increases year after year,” Fahle said. "I think the overarching question is, will the Commonwealth be able to keep its promises — and I think that remains to be seen.”
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