THE MASSACHUSETTS EFFORT TO PROVIDE EQUITABLE FUNDING FOR PUBLIC SCHOOLS

My previous post described the need for additional funding for schools with high numbers of at-risk children. Current school funding is inequitable because these students require greater resources to be successful than their better-off peers, but the low income communities they tend to live in typically are not able to provide those resources.

Massachusetts responded to the inequitable funding of its public schools in low income communities (highlighted by a court decision in the McDuffy case) by changing its formula for providing state funding to local school districts. The new (and quite complicated) formula, implemented in 1993, provides special funding for districts with high numbers of at-risk students. However, this special funding is inadequate. A 2011 study found, among other things, that the state’s formula underestimates the costs of educating students with special needs by about $1 billion. [1]

The state’s funding formula targets additional resources to meet the needs of low income students by 1) providing funding for 3 extra teachers for every 100 such students, and 2) allocating an extra $380 per low income student to help schools expand instructional time and provide tutoring. However, the 2011 study found little evidence that low income students are receiving these additional instructional supports. The Massachusetts funding formula also provides special funding for students who are English language learners.

Above and beyond this special funding, it was recommended that the funding formula include 1) free, half-day pre-kindergarten and full-day kindergarten for low income students, and 2) increased pay for teachers in predominantly low income schools. However, funding for these enhancements has never been provided. (In New Jersey, increased funding for pre-kindergarten programs is part of the court-ordered response in a similar case.)

The Massachusetts funding formula estimates that it costs $10,500 to provide an appropriate education for each student in the one-fifth of communities with the lowest income families. The 2011 study found that these low income communities spend almost exactly the state’s estimate of necessary per student spending, using a combination of state and local funding. The state’s estimate for the cost of an appropriate education for each student in higher income communities ranges from $8,500 to $9,500. However, many of the wealthier communities raise additional local revenue and fund their schools at levels significantly above the state’s estimate. The wealthiest one-fifth of school districts spend 39% above the state’s estimate of necessary per student spending.

Therefore, despite the state’s effort to provide a level playing field for all its public schools, high income communities are providing greater levels of resources than low income communities – and dramatically so when adjusted for students’ needs. Furthermore, because of underestimated costs for special education and employees’ health benefits, low income communities actually spend 32% less on regular classroom teachers (not including special education teachers) than the state formula’s target. On the other hand, high income districts spend significantly above targeted levels. This implies that low income school districts must have larger class sizes, less planning and meeting time for teachers during the school day, and/or fewer specialist teachers such as tutors, literacy specialists, language teachers, art teachers, etc. This is the opposite of what the funding formula intended to provide.

A similar pattern is evident in spending on professional development for teachers. The one-fifth of districts with the lowest incomes are only able to spend about half of what the state formula targets for professional development, while the one-fifth highest income districts spend about one-third more than the state target.

The Massachusetts example highlights the difficulty of achieving equitable funding for public schools among high income and low income communities. It is a politically difficult challenge because parents in high income communities have the financial means as well as the time and skills to support and effectively advocate for their children’s schools. They know how to make their voices heard, including through communication with and campaign contributions to elected officials.

If we truly want all our children to succeed in school, we need to find a way to overcome the political challenges of providing equitable funding to schools in low income communities.

[1]     Schuster, L., 2011, “ Cutting Class: Underfunding the Foundation Budget’s Core Education Program,” Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center (http://www.massbudget.org/report_window.php?loc=Cutting_Class.html)

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