Massachusetts must fill funding gap for low-income students

A new study by the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education (MBAE) has found that our Commonwealth spends $4,642 more per student to educate kids in wealthy towns than it does on students from low income districts.

The report — aptly named “Missing the Mark: How Chapter 70 Education Aid Distribution Benefits Wealthier School Districts and Widens Equity Gaps” — was released last week.

The economic crisis brought on by the pandemic and our shared economic future require that Massachusetts make some changes to education funding to ensure a more equitable system. People of conscience should ask the obvious question: Is it fair for our state government to subsidize wealthy communities’ school systems?

Wealthy people tend to live in wealthy communities. While the prestige of manicured lawns and large, costly homes may be enough to attract the wealthy to these communities, ensuring that these communities stay wealthy is the result of zoning.

Though zoning is practiced all over Massachusetts, when it is used to prevent low income people from living in certain towns, it is called “exclusionary zoning.”

Examples of this include zoning regulations that discourage the development of smaller houses, apartment buildings, and multi-family houses, and/or requires one to five acre lots to build a house. Such regulations increase the cost to build and therefore greatly reduce the likelihood that these communities will have a wide range of economic, racial, and social diversity.

Wealthy towns can spend much more on education for their children, so many of these towns have essentially created public schools with benefits that resemble private schools.

Efforts to limit exclusionary zoning have not been very successful, as indicated in the increasing racial and economic segregation of our state and country. So, children from wealthy families living in towns with little economic or racial diversity go to schools that spend more money on education with better programs than are available to children who do not live in these communities.

Massachusetts has attempted to make education spending more equal across districts. In 1993, the Commonwealth passed the Education Reform Act, which established a partnership between cities and towns and the state on funding K-12 education. The school funding system established with the law (called Chapter 70), identified the need for additional spending for students with higher needs, with the state committing to pick up a higher share of the funding for less affluent districts.

The Student Opportunity Act (SOA), passed last year, continued this partnership, increasing funding necessary to educate low income students, English Language Learners, and students with disabilities. But there was no stated source for these dollars, except the expected continuation of the growth of the economy and tax revenues.

Then the pandemic hit. Now, we’re looking at upwards of $5 billion deficit in the FY21 state budget. As a result, the Legislature delayed implementation of the SOA, with result that low-income communities will not receive the level of funding that they anticipated.

A potential source for some of the funding does exist. Over the years, the Legislature added provisions to Chapter 70 that have moved a significant portion of this money away from funding based on need.

As proposed for FY21, “approximately $778 million is distributed as a result of needs-blind factors that are not based on municipalities’ capacity to contribute to their schools.” The net result is that nearly $500 million of the FY21 state education budget of about $5.5 billion goes to the wealthiest 20 percent of communities in Massachusetts, thereby limiting the amount of money available to help students in lower income communities, and disproportionally affecting Black, Latinx and high-needs students.

Our wealthy communities have the capacity to fully fund their own schools. Our Commonwealth’s greatest resource is our well-educated residents who attract businesses and create a strong economy. To ensure that we continue to have a Commonwealth with a highly educated workforce requires investment so that all our children can succeed. During the economic crisis brought on by the pandemic, going to a needs-based funding allotment will protect our investment in all our children.

It’s the right thing to do.

Bill Walczak of Dorchester is a columnist for the Reporter. He is a member of the board of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education.