Hundreds rally for changes to school funding formula
Hundreds of teachers, parents, and students rallied on Boston Common Thursday evening for more school funding and then marched in the streets, cheering, clapping, and tooting horns.
The rally topped off an afternoon of events that featured a separate march of more than 100 advocates who snaked their way through the State House, chanting “Fund our future.” They delivered hundreds of letters and petitions with more than 20,000 signatures to legislative leaders and the governor calling for millions of additional dollars for local school systems and public higher education.
Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said overhauling the state’s 26-year-old school funding formula is long overdue.
“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to correct an outdated and inadequate formula,” she said in an interview. “We see the impacts every day in our schools from the lack of librarians, nurses, and special education teachers to inadequate class size ratios. . . . We cannot afford to go another single day in a very wealthy state like Massachusetts to continue to underfund our highest needs communities and our highest needs students.”
Smaller rallies were held at Springfield City Hall and in Pittsfield.
The rallies were organized by Fund Our Future, a coalition composed of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, and more than three dozen other unions, civil rights advocates, and parent and student organizations.
The organizations are frustrated that Beacon Hill lawmakers have been unable to reach agreement for the past several years on increasing school funding. A legislative commission in 2015 found the state’s general funding formula was underestimating the cost of schooling by hundreds of millions of dollars.
While the formula attempts to predict education costs for each district and a community’s ability to pay — taking into account property values, income levels, and other factors — it has failed to keep pace with inflation. That has forced communities to shoulder more for employee health insurance, special education, and specialized programs for students with language barriers and those living in poverty.
Consequently, spending gaps between poor and wealthy communities have widened, galvanizing many advocates into action.
The state spends $4.9 billion on aid to local school systems via the Chapter 70 formula.
Lawmakers in the Senate and House as well as Governor Charlie Baker have filed competing proposals to address the financial shortcomings. The House and Senate chairs of the Joint Education Committee, Representative Alice Peisch and Senator Jason Lewis, are also meeting regularly in an effort to hammer out a joint proposal. If the talks are successful, that bill would likely become the Legislature’s unified bid to address the state funding formula.
Organizers of Thursday’s rallies, however, are pushing for a bill called the Promise Act that is cosponsored by Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Boston Democrat, and several other legislators. It would gradually increase spending on local school systems by more than $1 billion, the most generous amount among the bills. They also are lobbying for the Cherish Act, which would provide more than $500 million in additional aid for public higher education.
They have criticized Baker’s plan for not providing enough money for local districts and don’t like that his proposal comes with additional measures, such as giving the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education more power to intervene in schools with low standardized test scores. His bill would boost K-12 education aid to municipalities by about $500 million at the end of seven years, according to one estimate.
Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said rally organizers would not accept anything less than passing what’s in the Promise and Cherish acts.
“Our students are too important to make compromises,” she said in an interview. “If they don’t come up with the right bill and money, we will take [our advocacy] to the streets where they live.”
The Boston rally coincided with a sit-in being held by about two dozen University of Massachusetts students, who are lobbying for a separate bill that would abolish tuition and fees. They split their time outside the office of House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka, demanding a meeting. They vowed to continue their sit-in until the legislative leaders agreed to a sit-down.
Tamar Stollman, of Sharon, who just finished her freshman year at the Amherst campus, said graduates tend to carry $30,000 in loan debt.
“It’s a huge issue. We won’t be able to buy cars or houses,” she said. “I want to work for a nonprofit, but how can I do that if I have a lot of debt?”
Thursday’s rallies were the latest public action by various groups. On Tuesday, several other parent and educator organizations that favor Baker’s proposal held their own rally in front of the State House. Meanwhile, officials for Brockton, Worcester, and Springfield said last week that they will pursue litigation if Beacon Hill doesn’t reach a deal soon.
The Boston Common rally drew scores of teachers, parents, and advocates — donning red “Fund Our Future” T-shirts — from around the region, including Fall River, Stoughton, Lowell, Framingham, Haverhill, Salem, and Freetown-Lakeville.
Over pulsating music blasting from a nearby speaker, Revere teachers said their system lost millions of dollars when the state changed the way it counted low-income students. The system, they said, doesn’t have enough nurses, social workers, and translators for non-English speaking parents. Class sizes are rising and some school buildings are deteriorating.
“We have been strapped for cash for years,” Erik Fearing, president of the Revere Teachers Association.
A group of Randolph teachers said the Promise Act would inject millions into their system, which would help to restore teaching positions.
“Instead of our kids going home at noon because we don’t have enough teachers, we could provide more classes,” said Brie Riccio, an 11th-grade English teacher. “It would be a great opportunity to ensure our students are getting the best education.”