Among the many challenges facing public schools today is to fund an adequate education for all students but especially students with complex learning requirements, gaps in academic experiences, and language acquisition proficiency needs. Students with these kinds of compound learning needs are disproportionally found in urban districts, where education is supposed to be both the great equalizer and the means by which students and families break the cycle of poverty. Stated differently, an adequate education in these school districts is an essential component of social justice.
We are all well aware that our students need more from us socially, emotionally, and academically; and yet, educators across the commonwealth find themselves having to cut back on crucial services and programs we provide our students. For the 2018-2019 school year, for example, we are facing increased class sizes and the elimination of after-school and extended learning time programs as well as social/emotional and mental health student support services – precisely the things we know are critical to closing achievement gaps and ensuring a safe, secure, and successful educational experience for all students.
In the fall of 2015, the Foundation Budget Review Commission (FBRC) was finalizing its report, which found that the foundation budget – the centerpiece of the Commonwealth’s Chapter 70 finding formula – was underfunded by at least $1 billion. One of the FBRC’s proposals was to increase the component of the formula that provides more resources for poor students to an additional 50% to 100% of the funding provided for a non-poor student. At the same time, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) was in the process of re-determining how poor students are counted. This is significant because each district’s foundation budget is increased by several thousand dollars for each student living in poverty, so an accurate count of poor students is critical. These increments help fund the kinds of programs that are now slated for reduction or elimination due to underfunding.
The DESE’s change in the definition of poverty moved away from the longstanding low income (LI) measure to a new economically disadvantaged (EcoDis) metric. This reduced the FY17 and FY18 counts of students living in poverty for two reasons: 1) the state changed how districts could identify lower income students, and 2) the state lowered the threshold for lower income students from 185% of the federal poverty level to 133%. Recognizing that the new metric failed to count many students formerly classified as poor, and in an effort to offset this undercount, in FY17, per pupil increments were increased from previous levels of $2,800 to $3,500 per student to between $3775 and $4135 per student, depending on the district’s number of poor students. In the current year (FY18), these increments are adjusted for inflation, increasing to as much as $4180 in districts with the highest concentration for students living in poverty. But the Governor’s FY19 budget proposal, released in January, reduces these rates by about $200 on average.
If we are to embrace the recommendation of the FBRC, that the “poorest districts be provided enough per student to ensure that two to three reforms might be carried out simultaneously,” – e.g., extending the school day or year; meeting social, emotional, and mental health needs; improving classroom instruction; and targeting class size reductions for the highest need populations – then we need to recognize that 1) the FY17 increments were too low to begin with (as they were intended to compensate for the undercount of poor students, rather than to implement the FBRC recommendations and 2) to cut the rates in FY19 is a step backward in addressing the inadequacies found by the FBRC.
A moral commitment to our children and their future requires us to provide an education to all of our students – including those in poverty – that is both adequate and fair. In 1993, our elected officials promised an adequate and fair education for all students when they passed the Education Reform Act. Our failure to adequately fund public education – as the FBRC found we have in fact done – constitutes a failure to keep that promise. We can begin to keep that promise by fully funding the 2015 FBRC recommendations. Until full funding is complete, at an absolute minimum, we need to reinstate the FY18 poverty increment (adjusted for inflation). Failing to do so not only would fail to advance social justice; it would be an act of social injustice.
- Dr. Mary M. Bourque
Superintendent, Chelsea Public Schools and MASS Past President
- Dr. Dianne Kelly
Superintendent, Revere Public Schools
- Erica Brown
Chief of Policy and Practice, Massachusetts Charter Public School Association
- Gerald McCue
Director of Administration and Finance, Chelsea Public Schools
- Aldo Petronio
Chief Budget Officer, Brockton Public Schools