Massachusetts needs to regain status as education funding leader

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From The Beacon, November 2016
 
The widely respected Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a national think tank that examines critical questions of investment in vital services and programs across the country, has issued a sobering report that documents how state governments have been withdrawing financial support for K-12 public education.
 
The center’s most recent study on school spending (available at www.cbpp.org) shows that Massachusetts is one of many states where, after accounting for inflation, state government has reduced general funding for K-12 schools in recent years. In fiscal 2014, Massachusetts state government provided 2.2 percent less in Chapter 70 formula aid than it did in 2008. It’s true that in recent years our numbers have rebounded a tiny bit, but in real (inflation-adjusted) terms, cities and towns have only received a school funding increase of less than 1 percent per year during the past decade.
 
On top of this, over the past six years the federal government has cut 8.3 percent from Title I, which goes to schools with low-income students, and has reduced special education funding by 6.4 percent.
 
If both the state and federal government have been reducing school aid, how has local education been able to survive relatively intact in recent years without devastating cuts? The answer is pretty clear: the only way that our schools have been able to navigate the aftermath of the Great Recession is because cities and towns have stepped up and provided additional funds. But this has come at great cost, as communities have consistently cut from municipal budgets to shore up lagging Chapter 70 aid, which has meant deep reductions in important non-school services and programs, and higher reliance on the local property tax.
 
The pressure on municipal budgets has been particularly acute here, as the CBPP report indicates. That’s because in most other states, communities and state government equally share the overall cost of public education. But in Massachusetts it’s a different story, as cities, towns and local taxpayers pay for more than 60 percent of school budgets statewide, with the Commonwealth providing less that 40 percent. This translates into billions more in local tax dollars that go to our local schools than what is received from the state, or what is common in other regions of the country.
 
While school funding may not be a building block issue in most states, the quality of education is fundamentally important to the future of Massachusetts. It has long been understood that our state economy depends on a highly skilled and highly educated workforce. We are the “brain” state, and we compete in the global economy based on our unique assets of education, innovation and technological advancement.
 
That’s part of the reason why state and local leaders came together 23 years ago to push for comprehensive education reform, which promised a major infusion of state dollars to fund public schools. The goal was to outpace other states and ensure that Massachusetts’s investment in education would provide us with an ongoing economic advantage. The state kept its part of the bargain until the most recent recession, providing a significant infusion of dollars to normalize education spending across the Commonwealth and boost school budgets in every community.
 
Ever since the economic downturn eight years ago, however, cities and towns have been struggling to tread water, while state and federal commitments have receded.
 
If this continues, we will lose our place at the top of the education achievement summit, as other states overtake us and infuse more resources into the classroom. We can’t let that happen.
 
The broad consensus among all stakeholders and observers is that the original 1993 school finance law is now seriously outdated. The vast majority of communities only receive minimum aid, which has been as low as $25 per student in recent years, far below inflation. Even this year’s $55 per student amount, while appreciated, is not nearly enough to allow cities and towns to keep pace and maintain existing school services and programs. Communities are voluntarily spending billions more than what is required in the Foundation Budget framework, not because it is easy, but because they feel they have no choice in order to have their city or town compete.
 
A broad commission of stakeholders devoted hours and hours to this issue last year, and concluded that Massachusetts needs to step up and restore a leadership level of funding to keep the promise of education improvement and achievement alive in our state. The Foundation Budget Review Commission called on the Commonwealth to address a number of fundamental shortcomings in the Chapter 70 framework, including adequately recognizing the cost of special education services for students, funding the high cost of health insurance for school employees, and incorporating the cost of services for low-income, English Language Learner (ELL) and other students who require more intensive services.
 
The commission’s recommendations would add nearly $500 million to Chapter 70 school aid and make Massachusetts a leader in school funding once again. Because of the cost to the state, and the current fiscal reality that has led to very tight budgets in recent years, the MMA supports phasing in the changes over a four-year period to ensure that education funding is sustainable and affordable.
 
At the same time that Chapter 70 is reset, the state must fully fund charter school reimbursements. The current $50 million shortfall is harming dozens of the most fiscally challenged communities in Massachusetts, and fixing charter school finances must go hand in hand with other essential school funding priorities.
 
Some budget hawks may say that we cannot afford to make these investments now, because the budget is tight and revenues are down. But the reality is that we cannot afford the status quo. The quality of public education is what sets Massachusetts apart from the rest of the nation. If we fall back into the middle of the pack, our advantage will disappear. If that happens, our economy will generate even less, and we will slip into a downward cycle that will lead to higher unemployment, less innovation, and more budget problems.
 
Fixing Chapter 70 is more than an investment in our youth. It is an investment in our economic and social future. It’s time for Massachusetts to reclaim its position as the nation’s true education leader.