(The following testimony was given on Monday, Feb. 29, by Chelsea Supt. Mary Bourque at a special state Joint Ways & Means Committee in Everett High School)
Low-Income vs. Economically Disadvantaged
Jose is a fourth grade special education student who has recently moved to Chelsea and is attending the Berkowitz Elementary School in Chelsea, MA. He has lived in the country for two years and his disability greatly impacts his ability to learn English. He currently lives in a rented room in a subletted apartment with four other families. He lives in the room with his mother and 13-year-old brother. His mother reports that the landlord asks the tenants to ensure that their children stay in the room to maintain a silent house. They share the common areas such as the bathroom and kitchen. Due to the living conditions the children have witnessed other members of the household under the influence of alcohol and in violent states. Police have been called to the residence and the student reports he was scared. The mother has reported that perishable food kept in the refrigerator has been stolen on a repeated basis. Since rent takes up more than half of her monthly earnings it is difficult for her to provide food on a consistent basis. Mom is afraid to seek assistance from community agencies out of fear of her undocumented status. — Jose is not on any State database-he is not counted under the new Economically Disadvantaged methodology
My colleagues and I are here before you today because we need your help. As you know, the proposed state budget for fiscal year 2017 contains a new methodology for counting low-income students. This is not a new issue for Superintendents. DESE has been transparent about their desire to change the Chapter 70 low-income methodology as the traditional method for determining low-income enrollment. The collection of paper applications to determine free and reduced lunch status is changing as some communities are moving to a new, paperless system called the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP).
In 2015, we learned that the proposed method for counting low-income students in the Chapter 70 formula, called Economically Disadvantaged under the new system, would mirror the Community Eligibility process, but there was a problem. The new method was counting 115,000 fewer low-income students, or 31 percent less than the 2014 paper-based counts. But this is a statewide average. For some school districts, this reduction was well-over 40 % and in Everett and Revere, half of their low-income students were not counted; in Chelsea 34 percent or 2,034 students were not counted.
Why has this been so vexing for all of us? Is it because recently arrived immigrants are not eligible for five years for the benefit systems that are being surveyed to determine the Economically Disadvantaged? Maybe it is because these systems were not designed to talk to each other and the matching process is, therefore, technically difficult. In Chelsea, we do know that our undocumented students, who we are legally obligated to educate, will not be on these databases.
A lot of hard work by a number of stakeholders has been undertaken over the past year to improve the matching methodology. We were told not to worry. The safety-net we were told, would be a hold-harmless provision; that if, after best efforts to improve the accuracy of the new calculation, there were still school districts whose Foundation Budget was disproportionately effected by the Economically Disadvantaged low-income counts. Yet, for some reason, a decision was made to go forward with a flawed system with no safety net. We need your help.
MassBudget estimates that for the Commonwealth’s ten school districts most negatively affected by this proposal, many of whom are represented here today, a staggering $61.2 million is lost in the Foundation Budgets of these school districts using the current Economically Disadvantaged methodology. This aid is lifeblood in the delivery of education for our Gateway Cities. We can’t hope to be successful under these conditions and can’t afford to lose the money. We need your help.
Over the past year, I had the pleasure of working with many of your colleagues on recommendations for the Foundation Budget Review Commission. As an educator, it reminded me of how great it was to work in this Commonwealth with so many in our state government dedicated to ensuring that our State’s Constitutional mandate, “that all of our children are entitled to a free and equal education”, continues to be met.
Under the Chapter 70 proposal you have before you, all of our students are not being counted, the system is broken, and with it, the promise of education reform. The integrity of the Chapter 70 formula, with its unique ability to ensure equity by counting our most vulnerable populations: special needs, English language learners, and our low-income students, is now compromised. The school districts that serve students where education will make the biggest difference in their future, are being unfairly penalized by a new methodology that is not quite ready to be used for this important purpose.
We can do better as a Commonwealth for these students. Much better. Let’s hit the pause button on this proposal and work together to make sure the Economically Disadvantaged model works for all school districts and works for all of the students who need our help.
Thank you for your time this afternoon.
Mary M. Bourque
Superintendent, Chelsea Public Schools
Executive Director for Administration and Finance
Chelsea Public Schools