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Mass. school committees push for full funding of low-income students, tax increases

Governor Charlie Baker
Governor Charlie BakerMatt Stone/Pool

School committee members from three dozen districts urged Governor Charlie Baker and other state leaders Wednesday to make good on a promise to fully fund the education of students living in poverty and encouraged lawmakers to raise taxes if necessary.

“It is unconscionable that as the wealthy continue to amass wealth, our governor and Legislature are neglecting our poorest communities, which educate an overwhelming majority of the Commonwealth’s students of color,” the 90 school committee members wrote in a letter to state leaders.

As part of their proposed fix, school committee members from Boston, Holyoke, Revere, Somerville, Worcester, and elsewhere urged lawmakers to raise the corporate tax rate, increase capital gains taxes, and close loopholes that allow US companies with foreign affiliates to pay less in taxes.

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The school-funding push comes one year after Baker and the Legislature approved a sweeping overhaul to the school-funding formula that is expected to pump an additional $1.4 billion in direct local aid to districts over seven years. The plan gives priority to schools that serve large numbers of students with disabilities, living in poverty, or learning the English language.

But school committee members say districts with many low-income students are still getting short-changed because the state’s funding formula is undercounting them.

For the last six years, the state has been basing its count on students who live in households that receive welfare and other state assistance. Such an approach can miss struggling families who are reluctant to accept state support, such as immigrants who are in the country without proper documents.

The state, under the approved funding changes last year, is supposed to revise its methodology for counting low-income students, but that hasn’t happened yet.

Thomas J. Minichiello Jr., a Brockton School Committee member, said urban districts need more money to help put their students on a more level playing field with their suburban counterparts.

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“The reality is some of these kids require more services and maybe smaller class sizes, but with the laying off of teachers year after year that’s impossible,” he said. “We are pushing 30 kids in a classroom and they come from families with a lot of transitions or are new to the country.”

Chelsea, a community with many immigrant families, has seen its portion of low-income students fluctuate dramatically in recent years. Six years ago, they accounted for 84 percent of public school enrollment; last year they represented 64 percent, according to the most recent state data. The numbers appear to be dropping again.

“We have fewer lower income students on the books than we did last year,” said Roberto Jiménez Rivera, a Chelsea School Committee member, noting they did not suddenly vanish in the midst of an economic and public health crisis caused by the pandemic. “We are losing out on millions of dollars because the state is not counting them as low income.”

Many districts have fewer low-income students on their rosters because the state changed the way it counted them six years ago when it stopped using the number of students who qualified for free or reduced-price lunches. The state changed the methodology because many districts, like Boston, started participating in a federal program that allows districts to give all students free meals regardless of income status and consequently were no longer collecting free lunch applications.

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A spokesperson for Baker and state Education Secretary James Peyser declined to comment.

School committee members said in their letter that fixing school funding would yield long-term benefits for the state’s economy by creating a more skilled workforce.

“Fixing the funding for low-income students isn’t about giving additional resources to these students as a gift,” they wrote in their letter. “It’s about giving these students the resources they are owed and were promised.”


James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.