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KEVIN CULLEN

A state budget that makes life worse for poor kids

There is a little girl in Revere who is in the first grade. When she was in kindergarten, her father was arrested for beating her mother and now she and her mother live in a shelter.

This little girl — poor, vulnerable, struggling academically — has been able to get the extra services she needs, but that’s about to change. In one sweep of government fiat, when a new state budget kicks in on July 1, that little girl will go from being listed as low income to being listed as nothing, as if her poverty doesn’t exist.

Under a new formula using different methodology, that little girl is not considered “economically disadvantaged,” which is ludicrous because she has not suddenly become any less poor, any less vulnerable.

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If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, a lot of poor kids are going to find themselves in hellish positions because of what, ironically, was an attempt by the state of Massachusetts to identify more poor kids in more school districts. Governor Charlie Baker has actually proposed a $72 million increase in so-called Chapter 70 funding, which takes into account the level of poverty in each city and town.

But by changing the methodology used to assess which kids are poor, the state is short-changing some 30 communities that serve some of the poorest kids in Massachusetts.

The cities of Revere, Everett, and Chelsea form a triangle that would never be confused with Bermuda. Under the new poverty calculations, 2,227 kids in Revere will magically not be considered poor anymore, leaving the public schools with a loss of $2 million in Chapter 70 funds. Chelsea has 2,034 students who will overnight be removed from the ranks of the poor, resulting in a loss of $2.6 million. Everett has 2,013 kids who are part of the lost poor, with a loss of $1.7 million.

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The problem is that under the new methodology, only kids who live in public housing, receive food stamps or MassHealth, or are foster children get listed as economically disadvantaged, making their schools eligible for Chapter 70 funding. But there are a lot of really poor kids who don’t fit that profile, especially immigrants, who have to be living here for five years before they are eligible for those services.

“The problem is trying to use a one-size-fits-all, and that just doesn’t work,” said Mary Bourque, the Chelsea schools superintendent and president of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.

Last week, Bourque and Fred Foresteire, the Everett school superintendent, sat with their Revere counterpart, Dianne Kelly, in Kelly’s office, sharing their frustrations and the prospect of sending out layoff notices next month to the teachers, counselors, and professionals who work with the poorest, most vulnerable kids in the state. “The communities that need the most help are getting hurt the most,” said Foresteire.

Bourque’s group proposes a short-term compromise, allowing districts to use the new economically disadvantaged formula, or the old low-income formula, which they said would cost about $28 million more in Chapter 70 funding. Long term, the superintendents want the Legislature to convene a multi-agency task force to figure out the most equitable way to distribute this money, taking into consideration the situations facing districts with large immigrant populations.

This is not just some academic discussion, some bureaucratic mumbo jumbo. Left unaddressed, there will be consequences. “We know what happens if kids are not educated,” Kelly said. “They end up homeless. They end up in jail.”

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Governor Baker deserves great credit for tackling the mess at the Department of Children and Families. There has been real progress. But if this Orwellian situation where poor children are arbitrarily determined not to exist is not addressed, DCF will be overwhelmed like never before. The school-based interventions that keep kids in school and keep fragile family units together, interventions that keep people out of hospitals and jails, will not happen.

We can pay now, or pay later. And if it’s later, it will cost a lot more, in money and human misery.


Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.