Back in 1993, when the average U.S. income was $33,000 a year and the price of a movie ticket was about $4, Massachusetts created a formula to figure out how much money the state should give each school district.
Twenty-four years later, lawmakers and education experts say this formula is out of step with the times and leaving many districts underfunded. On Monday, a state senator is pushing for the passage of a new bill that would rewrite the state's so-called foundation budget.
Formula Revision May Bring 'Messy Change'
The state foundation budget was designed to be the "great equalizer." It's a formula created to ensure every school district receives the amount it needs to provide an adequate education to its students. But, state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz says that's not happening for some school communities.
"Even though we are tops in the nation on education achievement in Massachusetts, we are also 48th in the nation on inequality," she says.
Chang-Diaz says poorer districts have been affected the most by an outdated funding formula, which has been underpredicting how much districts need to the tune of up to $2 billion. She and a commission formed to study the outcomes of the current formula are now proposing its methods for calculating certain costs be updated. The four areas the commission's recommendations focus on are costs associated with health care, special education, English-language learners and low-income students.
The first two categories — health care and special education — are what Chang-Diaz calls fixed costs. She says these costs have been growing way faster than the original foundation formula predicted they would.
She explains how this plays out, using the city of Chelsea as an example: "Their health care costs are $6.7 million more than the foundational formula predicts that they would be. And that’s $6.7 million they have to spend right. Right from go."
If you spread that across the Chelsea system, that's about $750,000 per school.
"Imagine if your school, your kids' school, had $750,000 more a year to work with, you know," she says. "Like what are the things that you would really like to see come to life at your school?"
An updated formula, Chang-Diaz says, would better predict how much districts need. But some observers are not convinced lawmakers will back it.
"There’s a reason the formula has been mostly unchanged," says economist and Salem State University professor Kenneth Ardon. "It's a messy change."
Ardon worked for many years in the finance and administration office at the State House and, based on his experience, says lawmakers like simple add-ons to existing frameworks. Changing the funding formula is complicated, and Ardon believes lawmakers will be thinking about unforeseen consequences.
"Opening up the foundation formula opens up a whole messy can of worms that people don’t want to get involved in," he says. "It's much easier for the Legislature to avoid a complicated question about: 'What is the appropriate formula? What is the appropriate minimum amount?' "
Twice before, the state Senate passed legislation containing proposals that were not implemented. This is the first time Chang-Diaz is pushing for sweeping change. Despite some pushback, Chang-Diaz says she is determined to bring the funding formula into the 21st century.
This segment aired on April 10, 2017.