In 1993, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that Massachusetts has a constitutional obligation to offer all children an adequate education, regardless of the wealth of their communities. That same week, the legislature passed the Education Reform Act, which included a “foundation budget” formula to equitably fund adequate education for all.
For seven years, we kept the promise. Local aid to education increased by $1.2 billion per year. Achievement of students in previously low-spending districts went up.
But in 2001, tax cuts were phased in at the same time that the economy slowed. Since then, state aid to education has not increased as fast as inflation. Still worse, the cost of health insurance rose far faster than had been anticipated. And the costs of special education far outstripped the assumptions.
As costs increased other educational priorities were squeezed. Except for the highest-wealth districts, all communities are short-changing their students compared to what we deemed adequate in 1993. This became clear to the Foundation Budget Review Commission (FBRC) as we held hearings around the state in 2015.
Wachusett’s superintendent testified that they were using “textbooks older than the students.” People from Holyoke said their kindergartens had 27 students, many of whom started without knowing their alphabets or English. They said their schools had no librarians or reading teachers.
We also heard that the foundation budget does not reflect the new costs of assessment and technology. It does not reflect the real costs of trying to educate children from low-income homes who come to school with less preparation and support.
Yet the schools with the most children living in poverty are the most likely to be funded at levels that are clearly inadequate.
In most cases, communities that could afford higher taxes put in the extra funds to avoid bigger class sizes. Communities that were poor could not, so now low-income children get less of the resources they need from government than affluent children — exactly what the court ruled unconstitutional in 1993.
This affects opportunities for kids. Education Week reported this year that MA is 7th from the bottom in the gap in spending between highest and lowest spending districts. There is a very high correlation between student family incomes, school spending compared to foundation, and test scores. The schools with the lowest test scores are spending very near the inadequate, out-of-date Foundation Budget level, while the average district spends 22% above that, and the high scoring districts are mostly spending far above.
The October report from the FBRC says that “the good work begun by the education reform act of 1993, and the educational progress made since, will be at risk so long as our school systems are fiscally strained by the ongoing failure to substantively reconsider the adequacy of the foundation budget.”
Yet Governor Baker’s proposed budget reflects none of our findings. While state revenues are up 4.3% this year, Baker proposes only a 1.6% increase in state school aid, which does not come close to what the children of Massachusetts need and deserve. Had the Governor kept his campaign promise to fund local education aid at the same level as revenues increased, aid should be increased this year by almost $200 million.
The FBRC’s full recommendations cannot be implemented right away – that would be an additional $1 billion in state aid. But, as in the 1990s, we can phase in the recommendations, starting in this next year’s budget, with a schedule that will get us to adequate state funding for equal opportunity. We can increase local aid to education in a way that recognizes the greater needs of children in poverty, children with disabilities, and ESL learners.
We hold teachers, schools, and districts accountable to new standards without providing the resources they need to succeed. We must uphold the promise of the 1993 Education Reform Act to educate all children fairly.