Making the case for education-funding fix: Senate votes ‘yes,’ sends bill to the House

By Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz

Last week, I was thrilled to stand on the Senate floor as every single one of my fellow senators voted in favor of deeply needed reforms to our K-12 education-funding system. The bill has now moved to the House.

The Senate’s decisive action was a critical step on the road to addressing a situation that has grown into a crisis for families, educators, and school districts across the Commonwealth. Every day, students walk into schools that don’t meet our basic aspirations for functional, equitable education. Their classrooms are overcrowded or their schools lack critical social-emotional supports like counselors, wrap-around services, and academic tutoring. Technology and books are in thin supply. And schools are categorizing as “extras we’ll have to do without” things that we know are actually foundational to success: teacher professional development, arts classes, preschool programs, and more.

These kinds of cuts and deficiencies, which have been accumulating for over a decade, challenge every district in Massachusetts. For some, it has become so difficult that they are considering filing a lawsuit against the Commonwealth for failing to make good on our promise to give our children a quality education.

And if that isn’t enough of a wake-up call for us, there’s this: Massachusetts has one of the worst achievement gaps in the United States, ranking 48th nationally for the gulf between affluent students and poor students.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way, and we have the tools to fix it.

Twenty-five years ago, we found ourselves in a similar position. The gap between poor districts and affluent districts at the time was so stark that school districts did sue the Commonwealth. But then something great happened in Massachusetts to make us proud. That lawsuit caught the Legislature’s attention and inspired the 1993 Education Reform Act, which made a bold, righteous, and radically American promise: We as a state said that “We will provide high quality public education for all of our children.” And all meant all. So we established a new budget, the Foundation Budget, to make sure that every school district, regardless of zip code, would have the resources to follow through on that promise.

At first we did it—even though it was hard and required year-over-year discipline to appropriate the resources. But, lo and behold, the act brought about amazing results.

Unfortunately, in the years since, we have done little to update the formula, and it’s now outdated. Our education system grew and evolved along with our economy (consider that the internet barely existed for most Americans in 1993!), but our funding formula didn’t grow with us.

Today, our school districts are buckling under the weight of two decades of deferred maintenance.

In 2015, I co-chaired a bipartisan commission of experts to examine how to fix our aging funding system. That Foundation Budget Review Commission (FBRC) found that health care and special education costs had far surpassed assumptions built into the original formula. The FBRC also found that the original formula drastically understated the resources necessary to close achievement gaps for low-income students and English Learners.

In all, we found that Massachusetts is underestimating the cost of education by more than $1 billion every year.

FBRC commission members unanimously endorsed a few simple and effective recommendations to address this accumulating crisis: Modernize the English Learner and low-income components of the formula to provide critical services and align with best practices; realistically account for districts’ health care and special education costs; and establish a Data Advisory Task Force to better analyze school-level funding data as a way to inform future policy decisions.

These simple recommendations were endorsed unanimously by the members of the commission, who all agreed on the urgency of this problem, and on the road map for addressing it.

Since then, I have pushed my colleagues in the Senate and House to pass these simple policies into law and to put in place a public schedule-setting process by which we will phase them in. That’s the bill I filed at the beginning of this session, and that’s the legislation the Senate unanimously passed.

The promise of a quality education is not just the one we all made to our districts as elected officials. And it’s not just the one we, as responsible and caring adults, made to our children. It is a promise that runs to the heart of who we are in Massachusetts.

If this bill is passed by the House and signed by the governor, we will re-commit, in our generation, to the essential work of providing every child with a quality education – and ensure that “all” still means all.

Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz represents the Second Suffolk District in the Legislature.