When it comes to public education, Massachusetts is failing mathematics. The state is not paying its fair share of costs because of a funding formula that isn't accurate and hasn't been in some time. It must adjust its numbers.
Tracy O'Connell Novick, a field director with the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, provided a detailed analysis of the state's education funding formula to the Pittsfield City Council Tuesday night. Her analysis was largely based on a study by the Foundation Budget Review Commission that concluded in 2015 that the state is underestimating the cost of education by at least $1 billion a year. Even though the commission's recommendations have essentially gone unchallenged, they have not been implemented on Beacon Hill.
The foundation budget formula was established in 1993 as part of the landmark Education Reform Act in Massachusetts. The fact that it doesn't work today is not the fault of the designers, who surely didn't anticipate that the formula would go unadjusted in the ensuing 24 years. The education picture in the state has changed dramatically in what is now nearly a quarter of a century, which the commission's report spelled out clearly.
The commission found that the formula dramatically underestimates the costs of special education and of health insurance, which is no surprise. Special education was a relatively new concept in the 1990s, and while state and federal mandates for special education instruction have been handed down by Boston and Washington since then, funding has not kept pace. Increasing health insurance costs, of course, are a major problem for employers, employees, City Halls and school districts.
The report also observes that the original formula doesn't account for increased costs generated by low-income students and English language learners. The Hispanic population in the state has climbed significantly in 24 years, as has the population of other nationalities who have moved here as immigrants. A high proportion have settled in cities, and the increased number of students who don't speak English or don't speak it well, as well as a higher number of students of low-income families, have put a considerable strain on urban schools like Pittsfield's.
Budget realities hit home in Pittsfield Wednesday when the School Committee approved a budget for the coming fiscal year that is a quarter million dollars less than the current year. More than 70 layoff notices will be sent out, although some jobs could be saved through attrition. Teachers deserve praise for voting to delay step pay increases to help the district and community address a difficult situation.
A bill filed by state Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz would implement the recommendations of the Foundation Commission, and on Wednesday, the Pittsfield School Committee adopted a resolution supporting implementation of those recommendations. The Berkshire legislative delegation backs the Chang-Diaz bill, which could result in an increase of as much as $200 million in state funding for schools. This contrasts with the $91 million increase in state education aid proposed by Governor Baker which, while welcome, would not make a significant impact when distributed across the state in the assessment of Pittsfield Schools Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless. The state Senate is typically more generous with education funding than is the House.
The state does provide financial incentives to districts that regionalize, inspiring the Mount Greylock Regional School District School Committee to explore an expansion (Eagle, April 27). The committee is considering asking Williamstown and Lanesborough voters this fall to add their elementary schools into the current Grade 7-12 district. The stage has been set since 2010, said committee member Carrie Greene, when the elementary schools began collaborating with the middle school at Mount Greylock. This could result in more per pupil state funding for the district and a big jump in regional school transportation funding through Chapter 71.
While the state is wise to encourage regionalization through funding incentives it needs to do far more for financially strapped school districts. Along with inadequate funding, the state's school choice system financially penalizes districts, usually struggling ones, that lose students. Meeting the Foundation Commission's recommendations may run head-long into Governor Baker's opposition to tax increases but asking communities to endure an outdated funding formula that doesn't account for current financial realities is crippling schools and hurting the students that represent the future of those communities. Change is two decades overdue.
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“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Massachusetts to take a quantum leap or two on some of the things that voters have been telling Beacon Hill for a long time that they want to see us do,” Chang-Díaz said.