WE ARE STANDING on the precipice of an enduring, generational change in Massachusetts. After years of advocacy from students, parents, educators, and local officials from across the Commonwealth, the Legislature’s education committee released a long-sought K-12 funding reform bill last week. The bill will fix the state’s broken funding formula and recommit us to a core promise of our education system.
In 1993, the Legislature passed the landmark Education Reform Act with the goal of closing opportunity and achievement gaps between rich and poor children. It was the right goal — morally, economically, and for the health of our democracy. Yet, the funding formula we put in place to achieve it, though well-intentioned and deeply needed, was incorrect. The 2015 bipartisan Foundation Budget Review Commission found that the formula significantly underestimated what it would take to provide low-income students with a quality education. For 25 years, the commission found, these students were never provided the necessary resources to have an equal shot.
As a result, Massachusetts continues to have one of the worst achievement gaps in the nation between poor students and their more affluent peers.
Some have questioned whether it’s a good idea to make a promise as big as closing this academic chasm. Perhaps we should set a more “sustainable” goal, they say. That’s a polite way of giving up on the mission to give kids an equal chance in life.
For starters, our state constitution does not allow us to give up. It commands us to ensure a quality education for every child. Moreover, we have the courage of our convictions in Massachusetts. We invented technologies that got humanity to the moon; we pioneered universal health care; we recognized same-sex marriages when others were afraid to; we armed the first black regiment in the Civil War; and we gave birth to the American Revolution.
Keeping the promise of a quality education for every child, regardless of zip code, was never going to be easy. We failed on our first try in 1993, after all. Closing — not just shaving — these gaps means acknowledging where we have fallen short and committing anew to follow where the data take us.
It means ensuring that new legislation doesn’t just apply a Band-aid, but that it gets the job done by including the complete set of research-backed reforms that are critical to solving systemic educational inequity. It means not comforting ourselves with the argument that low-income communities are getting more resources than they had before, but asking the question, “Is this enough to actually get kids in Springfield to the same achievement level as in Longmeadow?”
None of the big accomplishments in our Commonwealth’s history were easy at first. All of them required resilient advocacy and courageous commitment from people across our state. But we proved they were possible. That’s what we do in Massachusetts.
Fulfilling the promise of public education as the great equalizer is our next big goal. Bay Staters believe in it. It’s a goal our constitution anchors us to. Now, that collective effort in advocating, crafting policy, and working together has given us a chance to deliver on it.
The bill released by Education Committee co-chairs Senator Jason Lewis and Representative Alice Peisch honors these core values. It fulfills all five of the recommendations by the Foundation Budget Review Commission — including the key equity provisions — and fills the $1.5 billion hole left by decades of underinvestment. It acknowledges the research that closing the achievement gap is possible, but requires two times the investment for our poorest students if we are serious about doing it at scale. And it takes good ideas from across the political spectrum — from ensuring that district students don’t lose resources when a classmate transfers to a charter school, to requiring local school districts to publish clear plans and metrics for how they will spend new money to reduce disparities, to more state focus on replicating best practices rather than punishing bad ones. It’s a critical and necessary step on the road to closing opportunity and achievement gaps, and to restoring our promise of a quality education for every child.
This bill represents generational progress in education and economic justice. The Legislature should be proud to pass it and the governor proud to sign it.
Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz represents the Second Suffolk District of Boston. She previously served as co-chair of the Legislature’s Education Committee and the 2015 Foundation Budget Review Commission.