It’s been called the “gold standard” of education funding: Thanks to the 1993 Massachusetts Education Reform Act, the state kicks in money to school districts based, in part, on their needs. In exchange, school districts step up their game in ways that are measurable by MCAS scores.
It’s worked pretty well. Dropout rates are down. Student achievement is up. But the funding formula behind that grand bargain, known as Chapter 70, hasn’t been updated since 2007. It has not kept pace with what education truly costs.
Health insurance costs have risen steadily, eating up a far greater share of school budgets than anyone imagined back in 1993. As a result, districts are forced to make deep cuts in teaching supplies for the classroom in order to cover a cost that has been ignored by the state. According to a study prepared for the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, schools can afford fewer than half the books than they did a decade ago. The cost of special education, which has always been given short shrift in the formula, has also risen sharply.
Wealthy districts are able to weather the storm by raising additional revenue or cutting back on nonessential services. They aren’t as reliant on funding from the state. Wellesley, for instance, spends 133 percent more than required. But Lynn doesn’t spend a penny more. State funding covers up 80 percent of its budget, so the city struggles when the formula doesn’t reflect the real costs of educating a child.
The good news is that state lawmakers have appointed a Foundation Budget Review Commission to recommend changes to the formula. The commission, which is scheduled to issue its report later this month, appears poised to tweak it to reflect the rising costs of health insurance and special education.
But the commission should not stop there. There’s a third item that ought to be better reflected: English-language learners. School districts with large numbers of them tend to be in poorer cities that can least afford the extra expense. That’s going to be a battle that pits poor cities against wealthy towns, but it’s a battle worth fighting. The recent threat of an education equity lawsuit by Brockton should be a reminder that courts might jump in if politicians are unwilling to do so.
It’s true that Massachusetts already spends a great deal on education — Chapter 70 aid amounts to $4.5 billion out of $10 billion spent on public education in the state. But that’s an investment in our future and our economy.
And not all tweaks to the formula will cost money. Brockton has asked the commission to change the deadline for reporting the number of students from Oct. 1 to Feb. 1, in order to better reflect the more than 400 children who are estimated to be absorbed by the school district after the deadline. It’s a reasonable request from a district whose population of homeless students has increased by 50 percent — to 658 kids — in the past five years. The responsibility for ensuring that they get a decent education should not fall on Brockton alone.