A stern warning from the Connecticut bench

The recent frank rebuke to the Connecticut public school system from a state judge should reverberate in Massachusetts. Connecticut’s unequal public education system is not so different from that of Massachusetts, where per-pupil funding and education outcomes vary widely from district to district. Massachusetts lawmakers know they have a problem on their hands with the current public education funding formula, which has not kept up with the needs of schools. But they lack the will to do much about it. The question is, how long will political paralysis prevail before a Massachusetts judge intervenes here, as well?

The Connecticut ruling said that the state’s school funding formula is haphazard and arbitrary, perpetuating a system where rich districts flourish and poor districts flounder. Judge Thomas Moukawsher, who gave Connecticut lawmakers 180 days to come up with a new funding formula, also demanded new teacher evaluations and student graduation standards. (On Sept. 15, the state announced it will appeal the decision, characterizing it as judicial overreach.) The ruling does not mandate additional funding, but instead requires that state resources, at whatever funding level, be distributed in ways rationally connected to providing the best education for all students.


The ruling holds up an unflattering mirror to Massachusetts, where the school-aid formula, also known as Chapter 70, has remained unchanged for 23 years. In that time, the educational landscape has been profoundly altered by a variety of factors, especially demographics and special-education needs. The formula is designed to have an equalizing effect, with less wealthy districts receiving more state aid than wealthier ones. But the system’s starting point, known as the foundation budget (the funding level needed to provide an adequate education to all students in a district), has been found to underestimate the cost of educating students by at least $1 billion. Per-pupil spending ranges from more than $25,000 (in Cambridge and Provincetown) to about $11,000 (Southampton and Grafton). It is politically difficult, to say the least, for a group of legislators to negotiate a new funding formula, especially if it’s a zero-sum game that will give to some school districts while taking from others. Efforts torevise the funding formula have centered on adding money to the school-aid budget, a politically easier task were there additional funding to be had. But there isn’t. Governor Charlie Baker and legislative leaders face making cuts as budget funding gaps continue to surface.

But the state still needs to even the scales. A legislative commission issued a report last year on how to overhaul the state’s school funding formula and at what cost. For example, the commission found that districts spend about 140 percent more on employee benefits than is allocated by the foundation budget. The formula also
undercounts the number of students with special needs and underestimates the cost of out-of-district special
education. It would cost about a half-billion dollars to overhaul the formula if the state adopts just two of the commission’s four major changes. The report was largely ignored by political leadership, but communities across the state took notice and did what they could to pressure the Legislature.


And then there are other significant reforms worth pursuing — again. In his 90-page ruling, Judge Moukawsher decried Connecticut’s teacher-evaluation system, calling it “little more than cotton candy in a rainstorm.” Teacher salaries there, and in Massachusetts, are linked to factors with no rational connection to student learning, like seniority.But efforts in the Commonwealth to assess teaching in a more holistic way have gone nowhere.

Massachusetts brags about having the best public schools in the country — but more accurately, it has the best public schools for only some students. In a landmark case 23 years ago, McDuffy v. Secretary of Education, the state’s highest court ruled that Massachusetts had failed to meet its constitutional obligation of educating all its children, rich and poor. Only a few days after that ruling, the far-reaching Education Reform Act was signed into law. If the Commonwealth is to uphold the principle of the law enshrined in the state constitution, of adequate public education for all, then the Legislature has to make some hard financial decisions — unless legislators want to risk having a judge someday do it for them.