With economic uncertainty threatening promised state funding for public schools, an education advocacy group comprised of dozens of Massachusetts businesses on Monday recommended changes to the state's district funding formula.
The group, Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education (MBAE), released a report that found that almost $500 million of needs-blind state aid goes to the wealthiest 20% of school districts under the current formula.
MBAE leaders argued a gradual rollback of certain needs-blind funding provisions for the state's wealthiest districts could alleviate some now starker financial realities for poor districts in the pandemic. They said districts that struggled long before the coronavirus, like Lawrence and Brockton, would benefit.
Since last year, many districts were anticipating significant boosts in state funding following the passage of the Student Opportunity Act. That legislation was slated to add $1.5 billion to the public education system annually after a seven-year rollout. But the recession spurred on by the pandemic will likely put a hold on much of that money.
"It is possible to get started on a road toward greater equity," said Ryan Flynn, MBAE's director of policy. "Our interest is that we leverage every dollar."
To do that, the group offered four proposals to move toward greater district-to-district equity:
- Incrementally phase out provisions in the funding formula that guarantee districts at least the same amount of Chapter 70 state school aid as the previous year, with some exceptions made for rural districts facing declining enrollment.
- Phase out minimum aid in the state formula, which guarantee districts a minimum per student increase if other factors in the formula don't result in an increase.
- Increase the maximum required local contribution toward district budgets that wealthy municipalities are expected to make.
- Eliminate below-effort state aid — which is provided when a municipality’s required contribution to its public school budget falls below its target contribution — to municipalities that have the capacity to fund 125% or more of their state-determined minimum budget.
"The COVID crisis has widened achievement gaps and put a greater spotlight on equity issues," said Ed Lambert, the group's executive director. "Equity is not just a social justice issue. It's imperative for businesses to diversify their workforce and have a strong pipeline."
The MBAE was influential in the passage of the 1993 Education Reform Act. Their 1991 report "Every Child A Winner!" was the blueprint for the law which, among other things, overhauled the way districts were funded, so that school systems with higher needs and less means got access to more state funding.
Group leaders said the work for this analysis of needs-blind funding began in 2019, when state lawmakers passed the Student Opportunity Act, one of the first major updates to state school funding since 1993. Until the pandemic hit, officials said the goal of putting a dollar amount on needs-blind state funding was to encourage state leaders to accelerate the implementation of the new funding.
Now, amid the public health crisis, MBAE officials said there's even more urgency to make funding distributions more equitable. Making any update to state education funding policy has historically been a heavy lift politically. MBAE leaders said that's why the goal now is to start the conversation about how to get more money to the districts and students who need it most.