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Commentary: Inaction On School Funding Will Keep Opportunity Gaps In Place

Last week’s failure of the Massachusetts legislature to reaffirm the state’s commitment to education by revisiting its school funding formula was another devastating setback to equitably supporting low-income students, primarily students of color. A recent report from the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center found that the formula – known as the foundation budget – underestimates what districts are spending annually on education by at least $2.6 billion.

The legislature's inaction means that students least served in Massachusetts — namely students of color — will continue an uphill struggle for success in an education system that is stacked against them. The Bay State is often heralded as a national leader when it comes to education, but opportunity gaps too often determined by race, class and zip code continue to undermine our progress as a Commonwealth.

Disappointing as it is that we’ve once again stumbled in our path to an improved education system, there is a silver lining: we now have an opportunity to build upon the strengths of the proposed legislation by approaching education funding from a more equitable lens.

Our state’s formula for distributing aid to public school districts is based on an outdated notion of equality that stems from a 1990s law that aimed to establish universal education standards measured by increasing the rigor of standardized testing and strengthening a system of education defined by uniform approaches for all students.

Equality is no longer enough. Our legislature, and our Commonwealth, must rethink not how schools are equally supported, but equitably supported.

Massachusetts can look for guidance to efforts happening in other states that are grappling with these same issues. The Connecticut School Finance Project is working with a diverse group of education leaders, community leaders and nonprofit organizations to develop fair and equitable funding solutions that meet the needs of all students. Although Connecticut is working through its own budget challenges, this collaboration and incorporation of all perspectives is essential for a truly equitable education system.

"We now have an opportunity to build upon the strengths of the proposed legislation by approaching education funding from a more equitable lens."

To do this here in Massachusetts, we need to acknowledge the structural barriers that cement our inequities. Wealthy districts and communities have tax bases and fundraising resources to cover the rising costs of education spending in ways that others cannot.

In large urban districts like Worcester, the cost of educating the city’s students tends to fall short by about $100 million a year. Brockton Public Schools spent $14,778 per student during the 2016-2017 year, compared to $24,458 in Weston.

School segregation contributes to these inequities as well. A recent Boston Area Research Initiative report found that the city’s high-quality schools are disproportionately grouped in historically white neighborhoods, and that the district’s assignment algorithm prevents many minority students from attending high-quality schools. Our shortfalls in education funding are further compounded by inadequate access to healthcare, supermarkets, affordable housing and many other factors.

Failure to overhaul our school funding formula has energized education advocates around the state. To harness this public outcry and generate the political will on Beacon Hill needed to achieve the equitable education system we desperately need, we must engage conversations among parents, students, educators, community leaders and elected officials and take a candid look inward at the limits of equality and how unchecked structural racism begets inequity.

In doing so, we need to think about what the purpose of public education is in the first place. It is a public good that serves as the foundation for our state’s future and supports all young people to succeed — not a competition that picks winners and losers based on where they live, where they’re from or who they are.

We need as many well-prepared students as possible to serve as active contributors to our economy and democracy. This means ensuring that the young people in places like Worcester and Brockton are afforded the opportunity to be the next leaders of our Commonwealth, not shortchanged by a formula that hasn’t been updated in decades.

Nick Donohue is the President and CEO of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, a philanthropic organization focused on education in New England.

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