Today, the legislature’s Education Committee released the Student Opportunity Act, a very significant education reform bill. It is an especially promising bill because the House and Senate leadership teams are already in agreement on all of its details.
The bill targets more aid to communities with the highest concentrations of low income students, but schools in every community will benefit.
The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) computes a budget for each school system in the state, known as the “Foundation Budget.” DESE also computes an amount that the school system should be able to contribute towards that budget. The state then sends the difference between what the community can afford and the Foundation Budget as education aid.
Unfortunately, the Foundation Budget computation has not kept up with rising school costs. On average, communities need to spend approximately 30% more than the Foundation Budget to run their schools. The poorest communities in the state are unable to spend at that level and are therefore spending much less than the more affluent communities in the state.
In 1993, Massachusetts was among the first states to recognize its duty to assure that all communities are able to provide an adequate education and to adopt an education aid formula designed to level spending upwards. The failure of the Foundation Budget to keep up with real costs has eroded that commitment to equality of educational opportunity.
The bill released today implements the recommendations of a commission that studied the real costs of school systems and recognized that the Foundation Budget is inadequate in four different categories: employee health care costs, special education costs, costs of teaching English as a second language, costs of educating low-income students.
The costs of health care and special education are readily documented and there has been little controversy about the increases needed in these categories. While the costs of instruction for English Language Learners are more difficult to quantify, negotiators agreed relatively quickly on appropriate increases in this category. It was more difficult to agree on the additional costs of educating low-income children.
The increment necessary to support the education of low-income children is, in fact, an unknown. Low income level is a proxy for a whole host of social and economic challenges which children may face. We have so far not done enough to help children overcome these challenges; wide gaps in achievement levels persist between richer and poorer districts.
While an individual lower-income child is likely to face special challenges, their needs are magnified in districts where most of the other children also have low income. The current Foundation Budget already recognizes this reality, but the new bill will greatly increase the budget multiplier for the most disadvantaged districts. In those districts the amount budgeted per child will be approximately twice the budget in the most affluent districts.
In addition to making these fundamental changes in the Foundation Budget, which will be phased in over seven years, the bill responds to concerns that communities have not been fully reimbursed for the costs of charter schools and the costs of special education transportation.
The state has consistently failed to reach 100% funding of its commitment to transitional reimbursement to school districts like Boston where many students choose charter schools. The bill contemplates a three-year phase-in of full funding for charter school reimbursement.
In some cases where special education students need to be transported out of district, the costs of transportation can approach or exceed the costs of the special education. The bill would include transportation costs among the costs for which a community can be reimbursed through the special education “circuit breaker”. This change would be phased-in over four years.
All together, at full implementation, the school aid increases due to all these changes will be approximately $1.5 billion per year over and above projected aid levels under current law. For the communities most in need which benefit most, the effect could be transformative, and all communities will experience relief from chronically rising costs.
Much more work remains to be done. Both branches need to pass the bill and controversies may surface. However, the emergence of a negotiated draft is good news for all school districts and represents huge progress towards equality of educational opportunity.
While I have not yet seen district-specific projections based on the final bill, my analysis of similar proposals suggests that the three communities I represent will be well served by the bill: Belmont, Watertown and Boston.