1993 was a major year in education history. It is the year that Massachusetts passed the Education Reform Act, which has defined education policy ever since. It was also the year I entered kindergarten. Okay, maybe the latter wasn’t quite as “major.”
The Education Reform Act introduced the current system of local aid to schools in Massachusetts (Chapter 70). The corresponding funding formula set a foundation budget for each school district based on a calculation of the money necessary to provide an adequate education to all students in that district.
The funding formula has remained the same since 1993. However, the world has changed a lot since 1993 (and not just because I’m now almost 30, instead of a kindergartener). It has changed economically, politically, socially, culturally, and demographically. Massachusetts, of course, has changed on all of these fronts as well.
The Purpose of Creating a Commission is to Listen to It
Understanding this, the Legislature created a commission to study this issue in the FY15 budget: the Foundation Budget Review Commission. The FBRC, chaired by Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz and Representative Alice Peisch, brought together experts from around the state to study this core question: Are we doing enough to ensure that all our students can succeed?
The answer: No. The FBRC’s resulting report found that the Massachusetts has been short-changing school districts because of outdated cost assumptions around special education, health care, English Language Learners, and closing income-based achievement gaps. Short-changing them by more than $2 billion a year.
Affluent suburbs are able to make up for this gap, but not all districts are so lucky.
We can see this in state rankings. Whereas Massachusetts is regularly lauded as having the best public education system in the country, we are in the bottom half when it comes to achievement gaps based on income and race. As the state with the sixth highest income inequality in the country, this is no surprise.
The purpose of creating a commission is to get recommendations for action.
Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, co-chair of the FBRC and the Joint Committee on Education, deserves credit there. At the start of the session, Chang-Diaz filed a bill (then S.223) to implement the recommendations of the FBRC on these four areas.
Because of her hard work and the advocacy of groups around the state, we eventually reached a point where EVERY senator was a co-sponsor of the bill, and it passed the Senate unanimously. That’s right: unanimously.
Abandoning Immigrants and the Poor Isn’t a Democratic Value
As too often happens, progressive legislation that passes the Senate (even, again, unanimously) hits a wall in the House (see also: climate change legislation, immigrant protections, zoning reform last session, wage theft last session and possibly this one — the list goes on).
After Rep. Aaron Vega got more than half of the House (including members of both parties) to sign onto a letter in support of the Senate bill, Ways & Means Chairman Jeffrey Sanchez and House Education Committee Chair Alice Peisch shot back with disingenuous counterarguments:
“There has been a push to adopt more aggressive and sweeping reforms,” Peisch and Sanchez wrote. “However, the availability of resources and the lack of a reliable revenue source in the proposals offered remains a concern for the fiscal well-being of the Commonwealth and the numerous other vital programs serving our most vulnerable residents which would likely be impacted as a result.”
The Senate bill did not appropriate money, but it’s important to know how much the state should be spending. If we don’t know the amount that our students need, then we’re certainly not going to be meeting those needs.
And, frankly, our Democratic representatives should view this as something worth finding the revenue for. We are one of the most affluent states in the country, with a thriving economy (and a booming biotech sector that our Legislature loves giving handouts to). The money’s there — the problem is a lack of political will.
But back to the House. When the House decided to take up education funding last week, they decided to eliminate the provisions for English Language Learners and low-income students. That’s right: they–our overwhelmingly Democratic House–threw the most vulnerable students under the bus.
Chairman Jeff Sanchez, the first Latino Ways & Means chair, whose personal story as a politician emphasizes growing up as a poor Latino kid from Mission Hill, told today’s poor Latino kids in Mission Hill (or Lawrence or Holyoke or Springfield or elsewhere) that their education just isn’t that important.
Where Things Stand, with a Clock That’s Ticking
The Senate promptly amended the House bill with its own bill, and a Conference Committee was formed earlier this week.
The Democratic conferees on the House side are Alice Peisch and Claire Cronin.
Alice Peisch’s Wellesley-based district is very affluent and very white. The district can easily make up for funding gaps on its own, and it isn’t much affected (comparatively speaking) by insufficient funding for low-income students and English Language Learners. However, I would like to think that the residents of a district that went for Clinton over Trump 71-23 have regard for low-income and immigrant students in other cities and towns. We all know that Trump would gladly leave these students behind. Shouldn’t our Democratic reps be better than that?
Claire Cronin’s district, by contrast, contains Brockton, one of the poorest cities in Massachusetts. Brockton has been suffering so much from insufficient education funding that it is suing the state. Shouldn’t Claire Cronin stand with the students, teachers, parents, and community members in support of greater equity?
With all that the federal government is doing to impoverish the impoverished and demonize and criminalize immigrants, states like Massachusetts need to be bastions of just and equitable policy. The Legislative Session ends in less than two weeks — on July 31st. We’ll see if the Legislature agrees.