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EDITORIAL

School spending is more about ‘how’ than ‘how much’

Senator Jamie Eldridge listened to speakers on Beacon Hill on May 16, surrounded by protesters demanding greater funding for public education.
Senator Jamie Eldridge listened to speakers on Beacon Hill on May 16, surrounded by protesters demanding greater funding for public education.(CRAIG F. WALKER/GLOBE STAFF/FILE)

Throwing money at public education isn’t the same as cherishing it. It looks like it’s up to House Speaker Robert DeLeo and state Representative Alice Peisch, the House chair of the Legislature’s Education Committee, to stand up for that important principle as Beacon Hill grinds away at key education-funding legislation.

The House, Senate, and Governor Charlie Baker are all on board with boosting funding for public education, with most of the new money flowing to districts with high numbers of students from low-income families. The exact number officials have in mind varies by as much as $1 billion, but they all acknowledge the reality that the current formula underfunds districts in Gateway Cities with high immigrant and low-income populations.

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A 2015 review of the state’s education funding system by the Foundation Budget Review Commission laid bare the reasons why the current formula doesn’t provide nearly enough for those districts. For instance, students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to arrive at school with social and emotional-health needs, and challenging home lives. The state does already provide a higher reimbursement for students from low-income backgrounds, but the commission found it wasn’t enough to cover the cost of the integrated approach — social workers, guidance counselors, and other staff — required.

Providing more funding for students from low-income families would be an acknowledgment that trauma, hunger, homelessness, family instability, and other challenges that they’re more likely to experience aren’t just woes for agencies like the Department of Children and Families and MassHealth (Medicaid) — they are academic problems, too, and they can hold kids back from reaching their potential.

What the commission failed to agree on was a dollar figure: a specific recommendation of how much more to spend to meet the needs of kids from low-income families and English-language learners. That’s led to the current negotiations. Another factor putting pressure on the Legislature: the growing threat from underserved parents and urban districts to sue, arguing that by failing to act on the commission’s recommendations the Commonwealth has violated its constitutional responsibility to “cherish” public education.

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But it’s not just the numbers causing divisions on Beacon Hill: It’s additional education reform measures, too. It’s precisely because of the extent of students’ growing needs that lawmakers have a responsibility to ensure state education dollars are well spent. But that can be a tough position to take when major parts of the education establishment are pushing hard for new funds with no strings attached. And it appears that it may be DeLeo’s House that has to come to the rescue and insist on accountability measures to go with the new spending.

At the very least, the bill should include innovation-partnership-zone legislation, a mechanism that empowers parents and localities to improve schools that aren’t delivering satisfactory outcomes. It’s not a new idea: Springfield has experimented with a one-off version, and in 2017 Peisch filed a bill to establish innovation zones for struggling schools. Earlier this year, Baker introduced similar legislation, but, like Peisch’s, it hasn’t moved. The proposal should be attached to the formula revision.

The innovation-zone legislation would allow stakeholders in a local school district to establish a zone around a group of underperforming schools. The designation would empower local educators with more freedom to make budgeting choices, hire outside strict district rules, or extend the school day.

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The innovation-zone legislation represents the kind of tool a local district would welcome in their toolbox as an intermediate step before falling into state receivership, which can be a destabilizing remedy for a municipality. It is not a mandate to establish zones; rather, it would allow a local stakeholder — such as a superintendent, school committee, or a group of parents — to launch the process to create the zone. Colorado, Indiana, and Texas are among the states that have established innovation zones to provide educators with the flexibility needed to test new ideas and best practices.

Ideally, the accountability sections of the funding legislation would also include provisions proposed by Baker to give the state more of a say in turnaround plans for troubled schools, and to withhold funding from districts that fail to show progress. Adding reform to the mix would be in keeping with the state’s successful 1993 education reform, which paired a big funding boost with accountability to ensure districts are making good use of the dollars.

The crowd-pleasing alternative would be to just write a check. That’s the approach favored by the Massachusetts Teachers Association — and, it seems, many state senators.

But there’s new research that raises doubts about the notion that more money to districts is all it takes to solve problems at chronically underperforming schools. A study of school-level data by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education looked at the relationship between how much money individual schools spend per student and how well their students do. First, it found that some districts didn’t send funds to the highest-need schools; the state can’t just assume that sending more money to districts with high poverty levels means the money will make it to the individual schools with high numbers of disadvantaged children. The organization’s data also showed a weak correlation between how much money schools spend and academic performance. “Higher spending does not necessarily translate into more opportunity,” said Ryan Flynn of MBAE, who compiled the data.

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And providing all children with opportunity is what matters. If the state wants to fulfill its constitutional responsibility — and head off a lawsuit — it needs to do more than spend. It also needs to ensure districts spend the money well, spend it where it’s needed — and produce results.