BOSTON – State education leaders gathered at the State House today to announce the release of the recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission, established by the Legislature to examine the adequacy and effectiveness of the state’s current education funding formula. The Commission found that the way the state calculates a district’s foundation budget—the starting point in Massachusetts K-12 school financing—understates the cost of educating students to the tune of at least $1 billion per year. The report also stated that additional resources could be needed upon further examination of issues the Commission didn’t get to fully research. The report represents a consensus across the educational community—from legislators to teachers, school boards, administrators, department officials, researchers, advocates, and business leaders—that Massachusetts is falling short of its promise to provide the necessary resources to get all children to educational success.
Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, Senate co-chair of the Commission, spoke to the need for action: “We’ve been seeing increasing warning signs in recent years: accumulating school budget cuts, the fraying of the system that’s brought us so far since 1993, stagnant achievement gaps, growing social inequality. Until now, there’s been vague agreement that there was a problem, but not on the scope of it or what to do about it. Now we have a shared analysis, and we’re presenting the Legislature with a roadmap for how to fix it. So our message here today is: We all see the warning signs. Let’s not wait until schools—or our state—are chronically underperforming in order to act.”
The report focuses on four components for its financial recommendations.
1. First, it notes that current assumptions fail to take into account the national surge in health care costs over the past two decades, resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars being diverted out of the classroom to cover insurance premiums. As a result, many school districts are unable to provide core educational components like art, foreign languages, or professional development, or targeted initiatives to reach their most disadvantaged students. To address this, the Commission recommends that the Legislature use actual averages from the state’s Group Insurance Commission—the buyer of health insurance for state employees—to set insurance costs and inflation rates in the Foundation Budget.
2. The report’s second recommendation is similar: adjust the state’s calculations to more accurately reflect the current cost of special education. Because special education is a federal legal entitlement, school districts must essentially pay their special education bills first, before giving resources to other priorities. As with health insurance, the Commission recommended more accurate projection of special education costs in the Foundation Budget, so that money may in turn flow to additional priorities. They estimate the increase to foundation budgets from this recommendation to be $115 million in FY2014 dollars
3. Increase the “weighting” given for English Language Learners (ELLs) in the state’s calculation of educational costs, to more accurately reflect the intensive work districts must often do to bring ELL students to proficiency.
4. Increase the “weighting” given for low-income students in school districts with high concentrations of poverty, in recognition of the unique costs caused by such concentrations. The Commission noted that weightings for these districts should fall in the range of 50% to 100% above the typical per pupil cost, and should be enough funding to pursue multiple interventions at once—for example, a longer school day in tandem with wrap-around services.
The report also calls for districts to be required to post a plan online for how they are going to use the ELL and low-income funds to serve the intended populations, and to publish their outcomes in subsequent years.
If taken up by the Legislature, the recommendations would represent the first major modernization of the state’s education financing system since the Education Reform Act of 1993. While the 1993 Act called for a Commission to be established every two years, this is the first such Commission to be constituted since 2001. Many educators contend that much has changed in the past two decades, in terms of both student demographics and needs and what is known about how to successfully educate a diverse population.
Paul Reville, recent former Massachusetts Secretary of Education and one of the original architects of the1993 reform said: “If enacted, the recommendations in this report restore to our communities the capacity to provide the services and supports that will be necessary to educate all students—and all means all—for success. The Commission has effectively outlined both the resources and, more importantly, the strategies necessary to close persistent achievement gaps. Now, we need to find the will to execute.”
Speaking to the recommendations for increased funding for districts with high low-income populations, Chelsea Superintendent and Commission member Mary Bourque said: “Decades of experience have shown us that districts with a high concentrations of poverty need to pursue multiple, simultaneous interventions to ensure their students are able to get the most from school. Local school districts like Chelsea’s have been fighting tooth and nail for years to provide these crucial tools to our educators, and I’m thrilled the Commission has acknowledged both their true cost and their immense benefits for our children. I hope the Legislature follows suit and adopts the Commission’s recommendations to ensure our neediest children are provided the educational opportunity they deserve.”
Investing in schools is also a priority of many in the business community who have experienced increasing difficulties hiring qualified employees in recent years. Joe Esposito, a board member at the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education and member of the Commission, highlighted this need: “Recent workforce data show 170,000 unfilled jobs in Massachusetts, most of them requiring higher levels of skill and education than many of our citizens currently have. Closing this gap requires continuous improvement of the compact forged in 1993 based on high standards, assessments to measure progress and school funding allocations that address current realities.”
Patrick Francomano, President of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, spoke to the severe cuts that districts have had to implement in recent years: “Due to the foundation budget's not keeping pace with realities on the ground, we have seen the wholesale dilution and elimination of essential educational programs in foreign language, music and art as well as electives in history, language arts, science, math and social sciences. The recommendations in this report will allow us to refocus our resources on students in the classroom, develop skill sets for 21st Century learners, prioritize the development of the whole child, and provide our students with multiple learning opportunities that address their diverse needs."
The Commission was also charged with identifying ways to use state and local dollars in the most efficient and effective manner. Under that charge, the Commission highlighted quality pre-school as an effective practice both for closing achievement gaps and for reducing special education costs for the state and districts. It also recommended several mechanisms for improved data collection, to inform future rounds of spending decisions, at the state, local, and even school level.
The cost of school district foundation budgets are shared between the state and the local municipality, with the proportions varying depending on the wealth of the district. The report recommends that the proposed increases be phased in over the course of multiple years to avoid shocks to state or local budgets. With just under nine months left in the Legislature’s session, the need for action was not lost on members of the Commission. In its conclusion, the report reads, “We advise a keen sense of the urgency when it comes to addressing the identified funding gaps, and the moral imperative of reducing the remaining achievement gaps.”