The eternal question in state school funding is how much is enough. Two days before Thanksgiving, Massachusetts addressed this question directly when Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, signed the new school funding bill sent to him by the state’s Democratic-majority legislature.
State legislatures have to balance their investment of tax dollars across K-12 education, state colleges and universities, Medicaid, transportation, incarceration, and a range of other services and functions. And legislators have to build the public’s will to pay the taxes which make government possible. In the 2008 recession, tax revenues collapsed in many places, and political leaders across many states have been preaching tax cutting as some kind of solution to a lagging economy—even though it never seems to work. Again and again, from state to state, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has described “a punishing decade for school funding.” Striking RedforEd teachers have been demonstrating what all this means for our children: Staffing across America’s public schools has dropped below the barest minimum in too many school districts—no nurse, no librarian, no guidance counselor, no music or art, and class size hovering around forty students per teacher.
Massachusetts’ investment in public education did not drop as low as many states. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has reported that between 2008 and 2015, while (adjusted for inflation) Arizona’s state investment in K-12 public education fell by 36.6 percent and Florida’s state school funding dropped by 22 percent, Massachusetts managed to increase its funding for schools—barely—by .3 percent. But its citizens just demonstrated they expect far more for their children.
On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker went to The English High School in Boston, the nation’s oldest public school, and at a pep rally featuring the school’s marching band, signed what the Boston Globe calls “a sweeping school funding bill.” “The law is in response to a legislative commission report four years ago that found the state’s school funding formula, established under the 1993 Education Reform Act, was grossly under-estimating the cost of providing a public education because it failed to keep pace with inflation. Consequently, a spending gap was widening between poor and affluent school systems, often because affluent communities could make up the difference and then some. The commission identified four areas where the formula’s miscalculations were most egregious: the costs of providing services to students with disabilities, those learning to speak English fluently, and those living in poverty, as well as health care coverage for employees.”
Once the bill is fully phased in, Massachusetts’ new funding plan will invest $1.5 billion new state dollars annually into K-12 public education. The Springfield Republican‘s Shira Schoenberg reports: “The education funding overhaul will provide $1.5 billion more in funding annually for the state’s public education system, compared to funding today, once it is fully phased in seven years from now. The districts slated to receive the most money are those with high concentrations of poor students and those with a large number of students learning English.”
For NPR’s Morning Edition, Max Larkin reports: “The law is projected to add about $1.5 billion in annual state aid to schools by 2026, when it is fully phased in. The increase will reach most of the state, but it will be particularly targeted at urban districts with high concentrations of low-income students and English learners, and where many district funds now flow to charter schools.”
Larkin describes the reaction of Boston’s school superintendent to the new funding bill: “Brenda Cassellius, the new superintendent of Boston Public Schools… said… that she wants ‘to spend every single dollar’ of new aid that BPS receives on the district’s ‘neediest’ students.”
Schoenberg quotes Governor Baker’s remarks at the signing ceremony: “If there’s one thing I’ve learned in 63 years, it’s that talent is evenly distributed… What’s not evenly distributed is opportunity. There’s a reason why this is the Student Opportunity Act, because this legislation is about making sure that every kid in the commonwealth of Massachusetts, regardless of where they live, where they go to school, where they’re from, has the opportunity to get the education they need to be great.”
School funding ought not to be the kind of contentious partisan issue we see today across so many states. Kudos to Massachusetts’ legislators and Governor Charlie Baker for grappling actively with the cost of our public responsibility to provide equal opportunity in the public schools. The new Massachusetts Student Opportunity Act should be held up as a challenge to legislators in the 24 states recently identified by the Center on Budget Priorities where combined state and local school funding still lags below the 2008 level when adjusted for inflation.
In a speech on March 31, 2000, at Teachers College, Columbia University, the late Senator Paul Wellstone challenged us all. Today’s leaders in Massachusetts just paid attention to Wellstone’s principles: “That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy. Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children, including poor children, is a national disgrace. It is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination that we do not see that meeting the most basic needs of so many of our children condemns them to lives and futures of frustration, chronic underachievement, poverty, crime and violence. It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose, allied with one another in a common enterprise, tied to one another by a common bond.”