In 1993, Massachusetts enacted the most comprehensive education reform law in the country. It established a baseline foundation budget for every community, increased state and local funding to pay for it, created curriculum frameworks, implemented a learning assessment program, and enacted one of the nation’s first charter school laws.
This combination of new funds, accountability standards, and new programs had both supporters and detractors, but in many ways it worked. Thanks to the efforts of countless educators, Massachusetts schools are now among the best, if not the best, in the country.
But there is universal agreement that more must be done to ensure that every child gets the education he or she needs to succeed in the 21st century. The Foundation Budget Review Commission concluded that the current system did not adequately fund health insurance costs, special education costs, or the costs of educating low-income students and English-language learners.
In response, state government boosted funding significantly in the last three budgets, with this year’s budget delivering the largest increase in years.
Currently under consideration before the Legislature are two competing approaches, one called the Promise Act, the other a proposal by my administration. Although both increase funding meaningfully, they would affect communities very differently.
According to a Mass. Budget and Policy Center analysis, the Promise Act would hike the foundation budget by $4.6 billion by fiscal 2026, and increase state aid by $2.4 billion – and would require a new revenue stream to support it. Our proposal fully funds all four of the commission’s recommendations by increasing foundation spending by $3.3 billion and raising state aid by $1.4 billion — without requiring a tax increase.
At first glance, the Promise Act appears to be more generous to cities and towns, but that legislation does not take the complexity of the funding formula into account. For example, at least 30 communities would receive less state aid under the Promise Act than they would under our proposal — and it is likely that number would be greater. Communities like Bridgewater-Raynham, Braintree, and Westborough would receive millions less in state aid under the Promise Act than they would under our proposal.
In addition, because communities are required to match a portion of the state funding they receive with their own dollars, more than 300 school districts would be compelled to increase their share of education funding more under the Promise Act than under our plan.
Communities like Quincy, Methuen, Weymouth, Worcester, Lynn, and Lowell would be required to spend more local resources, an obligation that would either require a property tax increase or a diversion from other local priorities. Across the state, the Promise Act would take $400 million more out of local budgets than our proposal.
And for many communities, the foundation budget is only one piece of their K-12 education puzzle. Adequately funding charter reimbursements, regional school transportation, and the special education “circuit breaker” matters just as much.
In short, updating and improving the funding formula is complex. Nonetheless, if we focus on finding consensus around the following three key areas, we can and will get this done.
First, we need to ensure that the four foundation budget gaps as defined by the funding commission are fully addressed over the next five to seven years, while keeping the foundation budget formula rooted in the original principles, which have been successful for years.
Second, charter school reimbursements, regional school transportation, acceleration academies, dual enrollment, and early college programs, and other proven innovations need to be addressed – either directly in the funding formula or with discretionary, targeted funding.
How well we spend education dollars is just as important as how much we spend.
Finally, we must retain periodic student assessments and professional development programs for educators and enable more innovation partnership districts, which give local educators more autonomy to improve student outcomes. Accountability and shared commitment to the end game have been major factors in the success of education reform.
These three elements, funded with dollars we have available, combined with local contributions that cities and towns can afford, will ensure the adults keep their education promise to all the state’s kids.
Charlie Baker is governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.