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Schools need millions more dollars, urgently

Commission releases review of foundation budget

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Schools need millions more dollars, urgently
Accompanied by Foundation Budget Review Commission members, FBRC chair Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz announced findings and called for urgent action.

Massachusetts state and district governments need to pour millions of dollars more into education, and do it as swiftly as possible, declared a bipartisan commission on Monday.

The Foundation Budget Review Commission, a 21-member group representing educational, business, governmental, philanthropic and civic communities, released its report calling for major changes to how school budgets are calculated.

Costs for special education and employee healthcare are dramatically more than provided for under current budgets, said the commission. Cash-strapped schools are forced to forgo adopting teaching methods they know would better help their students and cut valuable programs like art and foreign languages.

“[In Chelsea], we continue to struggle to reach every child because we don’t have the resources to meet them where they are and take them to where they need to be in the education system,” said Mary Bourque, president-elect of MA Association of School Superintendents.

The 1993 Education Reform Act established a formula for setting what is known as the “foundation budget” — the minimum amount of funding a school needs to serve all its students sufficiently well. This was before MCAS, common core, internet in classrooms and other modern approaches, yet the formula only has been mildly adjusted in the past twenty-two years.

“The formula was made before we had educational standards set in the state,” said Paul Reville. He had advocated for establishing the original budget-calculation formula while executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education.

The majority of public school funding comes from the district and the state, meaning that if FBRC’s recommendations are enacted, they will see both the academic benefits and financial burdens.

“Perhaps nothing in this report is easy,” said chair of the FBRC, Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, “but it is critical to the wellbeing of the commonwealth.”

Formula behind the budget

The formula for setting the foundation budget estimates the cost to educate each student in school. It takes into account the number of students enrolled, as well as the kinds of needs the students have (for instance, special education services), their grade in school and other areas of school spending such as building maintenance and teachers’ salaries.

Both districts and the state allocate funds to meet the foundation budget. The state provides 17.5 percent of the foundation budget, and each district contributes based on its tax revenue, with wealthier districts paying more. If this combination does not meet the target funds, the state supplies the rest.

When a school’s administrators allocate their budgeted funds, they are legally required to prioritize funding special education and employees’ healthcare. These limitations often prevent schools from investing in other desirable categories. To balance budgets, many districts drop art and foreign languages, according to a FCBR press release.

Not only that, Bourque said that in Chelsea, the foundation budget’s provision for employee healthcare falls short by $6.7 million.

“That’s $6.7 million I must divert from educational interventions that I know that my kids need: lower class sizes, extending school day, wraparound services for social emotional and mental health,” she said.

Freeing up healthcare money

State-wide, schools’ spending on employee benefits and fixed charges exceeds the amount the foundation budget provides for by more than 140 percent, the report found. The overall gap comes to more than $2.1 billion.

To fix this, the FBRC proposed a more accurate method for budgeting the insurance costs and inflation: use the average rate from the state’s Group Insurance Commission, the agency that buys health insurance for state employees.

As the budget comes to reflect the true healthcare cost — and the state supplies a greater portion of it — the districts are free to redirect some of their money.

“Millions of dollars across the commonwealth will be freed up to spend on the kinds of things that we know schools need,” said State Representative Alice Peisch, House chair of the FBRC.

Serving ELL and special education

In many cases, English language learner and special education students are not receiving all the resources they need to succeed.

One reason cited: the state underestimated the number of students using special education services, pegging it at 15 percent, instead of 16 percent.

Additionally, more funding needs to go to educating ELL students, particularly those in high school grades, where the work to bring them up to speed is staff-intensive. Middle school ELL students currently receive $2,361 more in the budget than standard students. The commission report recommended that funding for ELL students of all grades should rise to meet this level.

Class sizes smaller than ten students per teacher were heralded as a useful tool to help students with especially high needs, such as ELL students whose educations had been interrupted or limited (as can be the case for refugees) and those at high risk of dropping out.

Re-examining low-income

The report also claimed that low-income families who live where poverty is concentrated need additional resources beyond what is allocated to families of the same income levels in different areas. Schools serving them must be adroit several educational reforms at once.

One reform approach may not be enough, and not all approaches — even those that have worked well in another district — may be effective in a given school, so it is important to try multiple.

Such remedies, which could benefit other student groups as well, include extended school days, health services that include social and emotional needs as well as physical, and extra time provided to teachers for planning and professional development, said the FBRC report.

“Many of ours students live in economic insecurity and deal with the chronic stress of poverty,” said Rebecca Cusik, fourth grade teacher and president of the Fall River Educator’s Association. “Additional services would be a huge benefit to us in meeting needs of our most vulnerable students and letting them focus on education.”

Small class sizes, she said, would be particularly valuable.

Early fixes

The commission pointed to the value of preschool in allowing educators to meet needs early on, producing greater school performance later.

“Data are quite conclusive that there are few tools more powerful than early education both on closing the achievement gap and saving the state and local districts money on special education,” said Chang-Diaz.

Preschool’s social environment also promotes the development of interpersonal skills, said Cusik, who was not a FBRC member. She was asked to speak after testifying at one of the commission’s public hearings.

“Preschool lets them enter school with a strong foundation on which we can build and helps them develop social skills useful to learn better and function well in school,” she said.

Keeping on track

To avoid another long lapse between reviews, the FBRC proposed regular commission meetings every few years. This was recommended in the 1993 reform law as well, but never realized.

The commission also called for more detailed, school-level data gathering and analysis in order to examine the effectiveness of practices.

Will it happen?

The cost of implementing the FBRC’s recommendations would fall on both state and district governments, and the commission recommends reforms be phased in gradually to reduce budget shock.

Extended learning time costs approximately $1,300-1,500 per student, according to Massachusetts 2020, an organization that advocates for expanded school time. Comprehensive wraparound physical, social and emotional services could be $1,300 per student, according to the Mass Budget and Policy Center. Not all proposed changes have price estimates yet.

The state legislature will have to vote to enact these changes, as well as flesh out areas the commission said they did not have time or funding to fully address.

Chang-Diaz was optimistic about the chance of implementation, saying that 68 legislators, including ten Republicans, had supported the creation of the FBRC, which was provided for in the FY15 budget.

Chang-Diaz said the need was too high for delay.

“Let’s not wait until our schools are chronically underperforming —or our state is chronically underperforming — in order to take action,” she said.