Recently, I was thrilled to stand on the Senate floor as every single one of my fellow Senators voted in favor of passing deeply-needed reforms to our K-12 education funding system. The bill has now moved to the House.
The Senate’s decisive action was a critical step on the road to addressing a situation that has grown into a crisis for families, educators, and school districts all across the Commonwealth. Every day, students across Massachusetts walk into schools that don’t meet our basic aspirations for functional, equitable education. Their classrooms have become overcrowded or they lack critical social-emotional supports like counselors, wrap-around services, and academic tutoring. Resources like technology and books are in thin supply. And schools are categorizing as “extras we’ll have to do without” things that we know are actually foundational to success: teacher professional development, arts classes, preschool programs, and more.
These kinds of cuts and deficiencies face every district across our Commonwealth. And they have been accumulating for over a decade. For some districts, it has gotten so difficult that they are considering filing a lawsuit against the Commonwealth for failing to make good on our promise to give children a quality education.
If that weren’t enough of a wake-up call for us, there’s also this: Massachusetts has one of the worst achievement gaps in the United States – ranking 48th nationally for the achievement gap between affluent and poor students.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way, and we have the tools to fix it.
Twenty-five years ago, we found ourselves in a similar position. The gap between poor and affluent districts then was stark and school districts did sue the Commonwealth. But then something great and proud happened in Massachusetts. That lawsuit caught the legislature’s attention and inspired the 1993 Education Reform Act – which made a bold, righteous, and radically American promise.
With the Education Reform Act, we as a state said, “We will provide high quality public education for all of our children.” And all meant all. So we established a new budget, the Foundation Budget, to make sure every school district had the resources to follow through on that promise, regardless of zip code.
At first we did it—even though it was hard and required year-over-year discipline to appropriate the resources. But, lo and behold, it brought about amazing results.
Unfortunately, in the years since, we have done little to update the formula, and it’s now outdated. Our education system grew and evolved, and so has our economy (consider that the internet barely existed for most Americans in 1993!)—but our funding formula didn’t grow with us.
Now, our school districts are buckling under the weight of two decades of deferred maintenance.
In 2015, I co-chaired a bipartisan commission of experts to examine how to fix our aging funding system. That Foundation Budget Review Commission (FBRC) found that health care and special education costs have far surpassed assumptions built into the original formula. The FBRC also found that the original formula drastically understated the resources necessary to close achievement gaps for low-income students and English Learners.
In all, we found that Massachusetts is underestimating the cost of education by over $1 billion every year.
The FBRC commission members unanimously endorsed a few simple and effective recommendations to address this accumulating crisis: modernize the English Learner and low-income components of the formula to provide critical services and align with best practices, realistically account for districts’ health care and special education costs, and establish a Data Advisory Task Force to better analyze school-level funding data to better inform future policy decisions.
These simple recommendations were endorsed unanimously by the bipartisan members of the commission. They all agreed on the urgency of this problem and on the road map for addressing it.
Ever since then, I have pushed my colleagues in the Senate and House to pass these simple policies into law and to put in place a public schedule-setting process by which we will phase them in. That’s the bill I filed at the beginning of this session, and that’s the legislation the Senate unanimously passed last week.
The promise of a quality education is not just the one we made to our districts as elected officials. And it’s not just the one we made to our children as responsible and caring adults. It is a promise that runs to the heart of who we are in Massachusetts.
The lawsuit against the state in 1993 – the one that prompted the Education Reform Act – called the state to task for failing to live up to our constitutional responsibility to public education. In the pivotal passage, the Massachusetts constitution demands we “cherish” our public education system. That is the only place the word “cherish” appears in our constitution. This is a legacy of our Commonwealth, a sacred responsibility handed down to us.
Our classrooms have been suffering death by a thousand paper cuts for years, and it’s long past time we right this wrong. Schools and families shouldn’t have to lawyer up to get a quality education for their children.
I’m proud the Senate is doing its part to make good on our obligation to every child in Massachusetts. If this bill is passed by the House and signed by the Governor, we will re-commit, in our generation, to the essential work of providing every child with a quality education – and ensure that “all” really still means all.
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