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Monfredo: A Tale of Two Cities - Centering on Adequate Funding for Education

Sunday, April 15, 2018

 

Maureen Binineda

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”… yes, it’s Dickens “Tale of Two Cities.  Interesting enough that was the theme at the last meeting of the Worcester School Committee.  The two cities were Worcester and Brockton for both superintendents, Maureen Binineda of Worcester and Kathleen Smith of Brockton made their presentations together as they attempted to make their case to the state to modernize the Foundation Budget for 21st Century Education.  Public Schools, especially those in the urban cities, are facing many challenges due to an inadequate funding from the state.  Thus, the discussion at the meeting by the superintendents and their chief financial officers centered on the lack of state funding,  recommendations to fix the problem and to enact the recommendations to the “Foundation Budget.”

To understand this issue let’s look back at what happened in 1993.  With the state against the wall in a legal battle over education reform in the State Supreme Court case, McDuffy v. Secretary of the Office of Education, the state ruled that Massachusetts had a constitutional obligation to offer all children an adequate education, regardless of the wealth of their communities.   Because of that ruling our state moved forward to address the issue of an adequate budget for education that same year with the Massachusetts Education Reform Act. The idea of the Act was to guarantee excellence and equity across the state regardless of the wealth of their communities.   The Education reforms were based on three main principles:

•    Every school district should have an adequate level of school funding, based on the specific size and needs of its student population.
•    Local communities should each contribute to their schools according to their ability to raise tax revenue, based upon the local property values and income levels.
•    The state should provide enough funding to fill the gap between an adequate baseline funding level... what became known as the “foundation budget” and the ability of the local community to contribute toward it.  The state’s Chapter 70 formula factors in each district’s foundation budget is the mechanism for determining how much state education aid goes to each community.

Worcester and Brockton, like many of our urban communities, are at the lowest in giving above the Foundation Budget.  In most cases, communities that could afford higher taxes put additional money into education but the poorer communities do not.  Subsequently, low-income children get less of the resources they need from government than the affluent children and that is exactly what the court ruled unconstitutional in 1993. 

What has happened since 1993 is that school budgets increased with inflation, while the states percentage of aid went down.  In addition, the cost of health insurance rose faster than had been anticipated and the cost of special education far outstripped the schools’ projections.  Therefore, other priorities have been squeezed including additional courses and class size.   Thus, schools have been shortchanging their students compared to what the state thought to be adequate in 1993.  Education, by law, was to be the great equalizer and the means by which students break the cycle of poverty and receive an adequate education.

The state legislators realizing this in the 2015 established among their peers a “Foundation Budget Review Commission.” This commission found that the budget was underfunded by at least one billion dollars.  The Commission did incredible work to recommend some essential funding reforms especially around special education, health insurance and budget changes of low-income enrollment and English Language Learners.  However, funding it was a different story.  Everyone does realize that adjusting the formula of 1993 cannot be done in one year but there is a need to move on these recommendations now piece by piece.  

At the School Committee meeting many suggestions were discussed by both districts. One example was with Health Insurance. It was recommended that there was a need to adjust the employee health insurance rate to the state ’s guaranteed investment certificate( GIC), add retired employee health insurance to the foundation budget and change the inflation factor to the annual change to GIC rates.  Similar suggestions were made to fix the Special Education section for together (Worcester and Brockton) there is a $98.9 foundation gap.

Both superintendents also spoke about the Senate Bill S.2325 that would support changes in the Foundation Budget. In addition, there was much talk about the lack of funding in the economically disadvantaged student enrollment category.  The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education changed the definition of poverty and moved away from the longstanding low-income measure to a new economically disadvantaged formula.  There was to be an adjustment for inflation. However, the Governor’s budget proposal reduces the rate by about $200 per student and that was a huge loss of revenue for both districts.

The bottom line is that funding has failed to keep pace with the cost of services. The legislators and the Governor know that the formula is grossly inadequate to meet the cost of education for the recommendations to fix the problem through the Commission came from their own body.

Many school systems, including Worcester and Brockton, have to face the reality of budget cuts as they attempt to stay at their funding level.  Paul Reville, education secretary under former Governor Patrick and now a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education said Brockton and Worcester have a compelling case against the state. “It seems to me you have a basis that the Commonwealth is not doing enough for the neediest district... how the state can hold them accountable for results if they are not providing adequate resources… If I were in their shoes, I’d be recommending them to reopen that lawsuit as plaintiffs.”

Remember, we all need to realize that education is the economic engine that moves our communities forward and despite a strong economy and healthy revenues the Baker budget shortchanges our schools.  Just this week the Massachusetts Department of Revenue released revenue collection data for March 2018. Collections for the month totaled $2.243 billion which is $176 million (8.5%) above the monthly benchmark and $36 million more than was collected in March of 2017. The Department of Revenue does expect the fiscal year to date revenue to trend closer to the benchmark as the year progresses.

The Worcester School Committee and the Brockton School Committee are in agreement that an adequate and predictable funding needs to be on the table. Thus very shortly decisions will be made as to what legal action needs to take place.  Are the Gateway cities ready to take legal action against the State?  All of this will depend on what the House budget looks like this week.

Remember, unlike businesses we cannot make up a lost year in a child’s life for children have only one shot at each grade level.  The time may have come to move forward and take action now.

In the meantime contact your state legislators and the Governor to demand an adequate budget for public education.  Do it for the children!

 

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