On Thursday, the Massachusetts Senate will consider a bill that would recalculate the expected cost of public education across the state — and could drive millions more dollars into schools over the course of several years.
Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat, is the bill's lead sponsor. She co-chaired a commission that looked into the existing budget formula back in 2015.
That commission found that districts were being asked to pay radically more than state benchmarks anticipated.
The resulting financial pinch is being felt across the state — but especially in poor communities, Chang-Diaz said: "We are abdicating a constitutional responsibility. And we [in Massachusetts] have some of biggest opportunity and achievement gaps in the country. That is not a list that we want to be at the top of.”
A 'Fair And Adequate Minimum'
The formula dates back to 1993, when Chang-Diaz was herself in high school.
Her forerunners in the Legislature were presented with a problem: That year, the state’s highest court established a constitutional right, for each child, to an “adequate education." How could they ensure children were getting that?
The Legislature’s solution — at least, the dollars-and-cents part of the equation — was this complicated formula, which they named the “foundation budget.”
For 25 years, that formula has taken in certain data about every public school district in Massachusetts and spat out a dollar figure — what state law called a “fair and adequate minimum [cost]" based on the size and makeup of a district’s workforce and enrollment.
Once that cost has been established, state and local authorities each pay their share, determined by how much tax revenue the locality takes in. Many wealthy towns spend much more than the legal minimum the foundation budget expects them to.
Here's the problem: The formula was supposed to be revised or even recalculated every four years to reflect changes in costs. But that hasn't happened.
By the time Chang-Diaz's commission met in 2015, it found that the foundation budget was radically underestimating the price of certain mandatory services.
For example, the cost of providing health insurance to employees had soared beyond every expectation, Chang-Diaz said. "That's not unique to school districts; that's true for every family in America, every corporation in America that's buying health insurance."
So, too, had the cost of educating students with the most demanding special educational needs — like severe autism or disruptive, emotional problems.
But districts are still legally obligated to pay for those services — and so they've had to cut elsewhere. Since, for instance, the Lowell Public Schools are spending twice as much as expected on health care, they can only spend half the specified amount in facilities, supplies and other areas.
Recalculating The Price Of 'Foundational Stuff'
Chang-Diaz's bill would redraw the formula, pegging the expected cost of employee health benefits to rising costs in that marketplace. It assumes the students who need to attend a special school out of their district will cost three times what their peers in the general population demand.
And it would make lots of other adjustments. For example, the current budget assumes that 15 percent of students need special education services a quarter of the time — so it adds a flat 3.75 percent to every district's expected costs. The bill changes the assumption minutely based on actual enrollment: If on average 16 percent of students need special education, that statewide budgetary bump must grow to 4 percent.
These may sound like small changes, but taken together, they could amount to raising the sticker price of public education in Massachusetts by as much as $2 billion by the end of the bill's implementation, according to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, a left-leaning think tank.
That would put the state on the hook for sending a lot more aid to less affluent cities with smaller tax bases.
And yet Chang-Diaz's bill has near-universal support in the Senate, with even her Republican colleagues signed on as co-sponsors. A majority of House members have declared their support as well.
Chang-Diaz takes it as a sign that all kinds of communities are feeling strapped, and that the bill's intentions are understood correctly as "ambitious, but not at all radical," she said. "As the name would suggest, this is foundational stuff."
It may be that the stars have aligned for the bill. The Brockton Public Schools have seen teachers laid off and class sizes swell as it's fallen behind on its costs. This year, the district is considering filing a lawsuit claiming the state is failing in its duty to educate due to funding shortfalls.
Brockton Superintendent Kathleen Smith says that as soon as she floated that idea, she started to hear from all corners of Massachusetts with their own funding complaints: "Whether it's my counterparts in the South Shore, whether it's rural districts — I've been receiving phone calls from superintendents, from community members that want to join and start to have this dialogue."
Chang-Diaz says she'd like to head off the need to settle this question in the courts, starting with Thursday's floor debate.
But she admits she is looking ahead to the "fair share amendment," a proposed surtax on incomes over $1 million, which would generate lots of new revenue earmarked for transportation and public schools. Massachusetts voters will likely be asked to weigh that measure this November.
"That would make these decisions less tight. It would help a lot," Chang-Diaz said. But she adds that the last time the Legislature pumped billions into public schools (in 1993), they didn't have a new revenue stream to count on.
Passing the foundation budget bill, then, could be a showcase of pragmatic political will, Chang-Diaz argued: "In my time as a legislator, I have never seen a political consensus like the one that we have around this bill — that this is an urgent problem, that this is the right solution, that this is the next thing we need to do in education."
But she isn't prepared to declare victory just yet.
This segment aired on May 10, 2018.