From the Beacon, May 2019

The time has finally come to renew and modernize our 26-year-old school finance system, and everyone – stakeholders, lawmakers and the governor – is optimistic that this is the year it will happen.

The good news is that most parties are aligned on several key aspects of reform. The challenge will be delivering a final version that actually increases state support for K-12 education and provides meaningful relief to the communities and districts that are struggling under the outdated system.

The practice of public education has changed substantially over the past quarter-century, while the basic building blocks of how we fund our schools have not been updated.

The MMA was privileged to participate in the important work of the Foundation Budget Review Commission, and we support full implementation of the recommendations. The MMA is also supporting other changes to school finance law, related to how we fund charter schools, ensure adequate minimum aid increases each year, and provide support for rural schools. In order to be successful, comprehensive modernization of our K-12 school finance system must incorporate all of these factors – implementing the FBRC recommendations, fixing the flawed charter school finance system, providing appropriate minimum aid, and addressing rural school challenges.

In late March, the Joint Committee on Education held a hearing on all of the major education finance reform bills. At that session, the MMA outlined a number of basic principles that we hope will inform and guide the Legislature and state leaders as the school finance legislation and the fiscal 2020 budget act are debated and enacted.

First, we strongly support substantial reform of the state’s decades-old school finance law, to update and increase Chapter 70 funding consistent with the recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission. In addition, any school reform measure must rework how charter schools are financed to reduce the fiscal damage done to the local public school systems that have lost students to local or regional charters.

We acknowledge the governor’s initiatives in the package (H. 70) that he filed in January, and we are asking the Legislature to enhance and build on his recommendations. Members of the House and Senate have filed bills to do just that. For example, we are very pleased that the House bill (H. 576) and other proposals would use a much shorter time frame to implement important FBRC recommendations, rather than the governor’s seven-year approach. This shorter phase-in is desperately needed.

Also, we commend the authors of the PROMISE Act (S. 238) for developing an impressive framework to simultaneously implement the FBRC recommendations and address the fiscal damage caused by the flawed charter school finance system. These are interlocked issues and combining them is essential.

Implementing consensus FBRC reforms
We support updating the Chapter 70 foundation budget factors consistent with the FBRC’s well-known recommendations. This includes accurate and realistic factors for special education and health benefits for active and retired school employees. It also includes enhanced and reworked increments for low-income and English language learner (ELL) students.

We urge the Legislature to support the fullest and fastest possible implementation of these formula reforms. We also support the proposal in the governor’s recommendation to enhance the guidance and psychological services factor to reflect new best practices related to school safety and climate, and social and emotional health. This is a helpful enhancement to the FBRC’s work.

Ending damage caused by charter finance system
We call for a school finance circuit breaker to mitigate the harm done to local public schools by the state’s method of funding charter schools. The charter school finance proposal in H. 70 is inadequate and would do little to help local schools. H. 586 and S. 238 include a thoughtful “district student aid floor” that would better integrate Chapter 70 and charter school finance and lessen the damage done by the current method.

There are years of documented harm caused by the current system, with many communities seeing a net reduction in available Ch. 70 aid from year to year, causing deep cuts in non-charter schools. Even if the existing charter school reimbursement formula is fully funded in the future, scores of cities, towns and school districts would continue to struggle to fund their regular (non-charter) public schools.

Rising charter school assessments are forcing local public schools to cut programs and services to make up the difference. Because the vast majority of K-12 students attend regular public schools in these communities, this means that the existing charter funding system has a directly negative impact on the vast majority of schoolchildren. Of the cities and towns with the largest diversions, many have been deemed by the state to have underperforming schools. These include many of the state’s poorest and most financially distressed cities and towns.

The current system has the unfortunate effect of harming the most vulnerable and challenged school districts, communities and students. No update of the Chapter 70 framework will be workable or complete without correcting the major flaws in charter school finance.

Ensuring adequate minimum aid
Even with the partial implementation of many of the FBRC’s recommendations in the governor’s budget submission for fiscal 2020, 57 percent of our school districts – 183 cities, towns and regions ranging from smaller towns in Berkshire County to our capital city of Boston – would only receive minimum aid, set at a woefully inadequate level. More than half of all districts (168, or 53 percent) would receive Chapter 70 increases of less than 1 percent. Under this scenario, all of these districts would be forced to cut existing school programs or further diminish municipal services.

The MMA is asking that annual minimum aid increases be at least $100 per student to avoid the damage that would hit so many schools across the state. Because there is no perfect one-size-fits-all formula to address all of the dynamics in 351 diverse cities and towns, minimum aid is essential to ensure that no community is left behind.

None of the major reform bills includes a commitment to adequate minimum aid increases each year, and this vital element needs to be added.

Addressing rural school fiscal challenges
School finance is complex and multi-layered, with disparate impacts across different types of districts and in different parts of the Commonwealth. Even with the above reforms and policies, many smaller rural school districts would be left behind. That is why any meaningful school finance reform plan must include provisions to assist rural school districts.

At this time, none of the reform bills would provide fiscal relief for regional schools struggling with declining enrollment, even though further consolidation or other fiscal efficiencies are simply not feasible in these areas. We are asking for a new rural school factor in the foundation budget to address this issue.

Summary
School finance reform is long overdue, and municipal leaders are asking their partners in state government to update this vital part of the state-local relationship because it is fundamental to the quality of life in our communities and the long-term health of the Massachusetts economy.

In order to be successful, comprehensive modernization of our K-12 school finance system needs to include these four pillars: swift implementation of the FBRC recommendations, a solution to the flawed charter school finance system, appropriate minimum aid, and a fix to rural school challenges. Without these elements, the gaps and inequities caused by the current framework will grow wider, and too many cities, towns and public schools will be left behind.

Written by Geoff Beckwith, MMA Executive Director & CEO