Quality public education for all is a central component of the YDMA and Mass Dems platforms, and no bill before the legislature better delivers on this promise than the PROMISE Act (S.238/H.586), filed by Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz and Representatives Mary Keefe and Aaron Vega.
Massachusetts is the birthplace of public education in the US, and our public schools routinely rank first in the nation because of high standardized test scores and postsecondary degree attainment rates. However, such high overall scores mask persistent inequities that continue to pose an obstacle to children’s ability to realize their full potential. The achievement gap between low-income and better-off students is one of the highest in the nation, as are disparities in per-pupil spending.
A major source of this inequality lies in an outdated funding formula. The Foundation Budget, established in 1993 by the Education Reform Act, was intended as a starting point for funding school districts across the Commonwealth, based on the circumstances and needs of each student. Just like the hair styles and fashion of the early 1990s are out of date, so too are cost assumptions.
The Foundation Budget is substantially lower than what all districts need, but only wealthy districts are able to make up for the funding shortfall. When the funding isn’t there, cuts to essential services and programs continue year after year. Communities are hamstrung by Proposition 2½ in their desire to fully provide for students’ education.
The Legislature knows what needs to be done. The 2015 Foundation Budget Reform Commission outlined the path forward, issuing five co-equal recommendations related to transparency and tracking and four cost areas: special education, health care, English Language Learner education, and closing income-based achievement gaps. The PROMISE Act is the only bill before the Legislature that would fully implement all five recommendations, and it builds on such progress with important adjustments to make sure low-income students are properly counted and districts aren’t disproportionately impacted by the costs of charter school reimbursements.
The other two bills under consideration fail to include adequate funding for low-income students. For example, whereas the PROMISE Act commits approximately $4,600/pupil per year in new achievement-gap-closure funding for our neediest students, the Governor’s bill promises only $473 when adjusted for inflation. These bills also fail to address the proper counting of low-income students and charter reimbursements. Now is not the time for partial solutions.
It has taken the Legislature more than two decades to revise this formula. We owe it to students to stop punting and take bold and comprehensive action as quickly as possible.