Monfredo: School Budget In Trouble - Needs Support From Our Legislatures!
Sunday, April 17, 2016
The joy of being a School Committee member for me starts by making a difference in the lives of our students and their families. I believe one of our many responsibilities is advocating for the necessary resources needed for public education.
When new families look to settle in Worcester the first thing that they do is ask about the school system. A city that spends so little on the education of its children can be a deterrent for families looking to live here. We need and want young families and business people to stay in our city and a sound economy in any city depends on a good public education system. The quality of life in this community is at stake for if we don’t have a viable school system it will impact our economy and our workforce. We all know that education is the most important economic engine to our city’s growth. In addition, unlike businesses, we cannot make up a lost year in a child’s life for children have only one shot at each grade level.
Thus, when budget time rolls around each year I have to hold my breath since it seems that as advocates for our children, we have to fight tooth and nail for the needed funds. This year is no exception for early projections show that there is a potential for a major deficit in the school budget.
The State Supreme Court case, McDuffy v. Secretary of the Office of Education, ruled in 1993 that Massachusetts had a constitutional obligation to offer all children an adequate education, regardless of the wealth of their communities. 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.
The 90’s were good for the schools for the additional resources moved our schools forward. However, as time passed without adjustments to the Foundation formula, poorer districts began sliding backwards. The promise of the 1993 reform has not been met, thus compromising the ability of Massachusetts to meet the aims of educational improvement. Worcester like many of our urban communities are at the lowest in giving above the Foundation Budget an issue that will be addressed in GoLocal next week. 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 short changing their students compared to what the state thought to be adequate in 1993.
Research does show that there is a correlation between spending above the foundation and achievement scores. An example is Worcester’s turnaround schools (level 4) showed that the cost of providing additional funding did have an impact on moving those schools out of the level 4 status. Children with the greatest need have the greatest gap between their needs and resources. Funding plus good leadership within the schools does make a difference.
Again, due in large part to increased health insurance and special education spending needs, most districts spend below foundation on the hiring of Regular Education Teachers. Only the highest-wealth districts spend at foundation in this category. To give you an example of the impact a fully funded Foundation Budget as suggested by the Commission… Worcester as reported by Brian Allen’s the district’s Chief Finance Officer stated that the Worcester Public Schools would have 661 more regular teachers and would be receiving $93 million more in state aid. Many in the field of education advocated the state to support a budget that is adequate, equitable and predictable. We should not have to go through each budget season “begging” for additional funding.
A glimmer of hope did emerge last year with the Legislature when they created the Foundation Budget Review Commission. The Commission did incredible work to recommend some essential funding reforms especially around special education, health insurance and budget changes of low income enrollment. Everyone does realize that the inaction of the Legislature in adjusting the formula of 1993 cannot be done in one year but we need to move on these recommendations now piece by piece.
However, the Governor in this year’s budget, did not recommend any of the Commission’s recommendations. While state revenues are up 4.5 percent this year, Governor Baker proposes only a 1.6 percent increase in state aid. as a School Committee, we are asking that the Senate and the House move on those recommendations. If both Houses just make adjustments to the “inflation” factor applied to the Foundation Budget and have it commensurate with actual increase on the cost of living for the fiscal year 2017 that move would greatly assist the Worcester Public Schools. We have asked for that with our local delegation in two separate meetings this year and hope that they can convince their colleagues to support such a move.
Author William Butler Yeats said it best - “Education is not the filling of the pail, but the lighting of a fire” and unless we do something about our funding that fire will die out. Please call your state senator and representative to support changes as recommended by the Foundation Commission.
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