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Worcester Officials Blast State Education Funding Formula

Saturday, January 05, 2013

 

Officials say the state's foundation budget formula is still underfunding public schools by more than $1 billion annually, putting more of the burden on local sources and cutting into resources in the classroom.

A Breakdown of Education Dollars

A recent report by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center examined fiscal year 2010 education spending data from the U.S. Census Bureau and found that Massachusetts was among the top states when it came to per-pupil spending. The Bay State ranked 8th with its $13,454 per student.

However, more than half of education funding in the Commonwealth currently comes from local revenue sources. Only 7.4 percent of school funding in Massachusetts comes from federal sources, among the lowest rates in the country. The dearth of federal funds is due in large part to the state's high academic performance and relative wealth, with federal dollars being targeted to lower performing and lower income areas of the country.

State revenues cover an additional 38.8 percent of education dollars in Massachusetts, ranking it 36th in the nation, and local revenues account for the remaining 53.8 percent, the 7th highest rate in the country.

"Massachusetts has a long-standing tradition of exclusive local funding of public education," said Brian O'Connell, a member of the Worcester School Committee, who noted that the state has evolved over the past 30 years to provide a more substantial portion of education dollars.

The Education Reform Act of 1993 was a major driver of that shift, pumping funds into many urban districts based on a formula that took into account both property and income wealth.

A Faulty Foundation?

But Worcester Public Schools Chief Financial and Operations Officer Brian Allen said that although the formula for the school foundation budget is designed to be equitable and based on an individual community's ability to provide education funding from local sources, many communities find the foundation budget inadequate for providing necessary resources and spend an average of 20 percent above the requirement set by the state.

Such additional spending is funded entirely through local sources, said Allen, and an estimated $2 billion of local contributions above required spending are allocated across the Commonwealth each year.

"The more important factor for those communities spending at or near the minimum level is how to address the change in the underlying formula assumption to provide additional funds and recognize that any increase may need to come from both state and local resources," he said."

The Worcester School Committee's Tracy O'Connell Novick said that Massachusetts has been ahead of the game when it comes to factoring student need and local ability to contribute into funding decisions, though the system currently in use in the Bay State is less than perfect.

"The main impact the current funding formula is having on Worcester and other communities across is the state is an inability to put resources in the classroom," Novick said. "Because the foundation formula has not been substantially reconsidered since 1993, it greatly underestimates the actual cost of parts of the budget: specifically, special education, which is an estimate, rather than actual cost, and health insurance, which has skyrocked in the past twenty years, are two cost centers that simply cost our district (and many others) much more than the foundation budget funds."

When money runs short, said Novick, classrooms suffer, with spending on instructional equipment and technology, facilities and maintenance and teachers all being underfunded to cover the gaps elsewhere.

O'Connell pointed to special education as a significant issue as well because the federal government mandates so much of what local school districts do in regard to such programs but does not provide adequate funding to cover all the related costs.

"Ultimately, the level of federal support for education is going to be a big factor," he said.

Room for More Investment

School Committee member John Monfredo said the 1993 reforms need to be updated, and lawmakers must look for additional ways to assist school with low-income populations. Prevention programs to narrow the achievement gap across the state should also be a top priority.

"The best prevention program is looking for ways of addressing the needs in our preschool programs," Monfredo said. "We need full-day preschool programs and need to work with private and public providers to get our children the necessary readiness skills before entering kindergarten."

A strong education system will lead to a strong, educated workforce, said Monfredo, and the Commonwealth's goal should be to have all students reading on grade-level by the end of the 3rd grade.

The Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center also noted that Massachusetts was below the national average when it comes to the share of education spending as a percent of the state's economy. The Commonwealth spends 4.07 percent, compared to the national average of 4.31 percent.

Despite the Bay State's efforts to increase equity in public education, Novick pointed out, "when it comes to commitment of actual state wealth, we're not on funding in line with what we have traditionally touted as a greater commitment to education."

With other states devoting a greater share of their lesser resources to education, she noted, perhaps it is time to discuss increasing the share in Massachusetts as well to match the state's professed greater commitment to education. 

 

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