I went to my first school budget meeting the year we registered my daughter for kindergarten in Worcester. Our neighborhood elementary school was among the four being closed that year.
When she registers for classes for her senior year later this spring, I’m wondering if her Worcester high school will have the classes she needs to graduate.
In the intervening years, we’ve lost classroom aides and secretaries; we’ve cut programs and languages; we’ve retrenched and rebudgeted every single year. For public schools in Massachusetts, the costs of educating students tend to rise by about 3 percent each year; in Worcester and other districts like Worcester, increased funding, if it comes at all, never meets the cost of educating the children in the city. This leaves a budget that educates 26,000 students nearly $100 million short a year.
My children and their classmates have never attended an elementary school with a full-time school librarian. They have never had enough support staff for the needs of their classmates. They have started the year with substitutes. They have dodged raindrops from the ceiling, ignored the clocks that don’t work, shared books and computers and pens and crayons.
It wasn’t supposed to work this way. In 1993, when the “grand bargain” of education reform was signed into law, the funding was to ensure that every child “rich or poor, in every city and town in the Commonwealth” received an appropriate education.
This funding system was based on two straightforward ideas. First, some kids have greater needs, and it costs more to educate them. Second, some cities and towns have less local wealth to provide an education for their children, and the state has a responsibility to ensure they are no less educated for that. That is a constitutional guarantee, backed up by a legal decision against the state from the same year.
The state was to reconsider the pieces of this funding periodically. But it never did. Thus when the Legislature finally did convene the Foundation Budget Review Commission three years ago, a number of pieces of the system were woefully out of date.
While basic costs may go up by 3 percent each year, health insurance, as all of us know, goes up by much more; that has been devastating on local budgets. Special education looked very different, and was less effective, 25 years ago; the costs recognized within the funding system are not realistic. Back then, we assumed that most kids who didn’t speak English in our schools were young and would stop needing support on language by the time they reached middle and high school; now we know that English learners come to us at all ages. We not only have more kids who are poor in our schools than we did in 1993; they also bring a scope of need with them with which we have only begun to grapple.
These four premises formed the basis of the reforms put forward by the Commission in October of 2015. The Commission estimated that the budget for Massachusetts public schools was being uncalculated by at least $1 billion a year.
Districts have handled this two ways. Those that can have fallen back into the old system; they are now even more dependant on property taxes to ensure that their budgets are able to appropriately fund their children’s education. Those districts that cannot simply run short.
Right now, we are teaching children in Massachusetts that some of them are worth relevant and updated books and materials, that some of them deserve classrooms where they are worth the attention of a teacher in a class of 20 or less, and some of them are not.
Most of the burden across Massachusetts is felt in Gateway cities, where school districts have registered the largest growth in student enrollment in the state over the past 10 years. And the most significant growth in school enrollment comes from students of color. No wonder Massachusetts ranks near the bottom in the nation in the achievement gap.
Every budget cycle in which little to nothing is done is another bit of the future knowing it isn’t valued enough to be supported. It’s another graduating class not gaining the education we need them to have.
With the Joint Ways and Means hearing for education approaching on March 19, the Legislature has an opportunity to fix this. The Legislature must vote S.223, a bill updating our current funding formulas, through both houses; it must include real, phased implementation in this budget cycle.
The argument has been made that the state cannot afford to implement the recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission. The opposite is the case: We cannot afford to continue to ignore it.
Tracy Novick is a parent of children in the Worcester Public Schools.