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School funding: Let’s put our money where our future is

Nicholas C. Donohue

Recently, the Massachusetts Senate took an important step in revisiting the state’s school funding formula, which dictates how resources are distributed for public education. This should be applauded, but to ensure a strong future for the Commonwealth there are issues to face. Specifically, we must reconsider the principle of equalized funding in favor of more varied, equitable and thus effective funding.

Over the past 25 years, the Bay State has made great strides educationally for some, but this has not led to improving educational outcomes. This is in part due to our unfulfilled promise of our state’s 1993 Education Reform Law. It is also in part due to the outdated notion of equality itself. As opportunity gaps prevail across our state, equality is no longer enough.

It is no secret that these gaps are driven by race and class. Brockton Public Schools, which recently filed a lawsuit against the state claiming Massachusetts wasn’t meeting its constitutional obligation to all students, spent $1.28 per student on school supplies in 2016-17, compared to $275 per student in Weston. Disgraceful education funding disparities such as these are further compounded by inadequate access to healthcare, supermarkets, affordable housing and many other factors.

Today, we cannot afford to forgo the contributions of as many well-prepared people as possible to serve as community and workforce leaders. Researchers predict that by 2020, 72 percent of Massachusetts jobs will require postsecondary education or training. This means we need different approaches focused on much broader attainment of strong educational outcomes. These must include varied educational and funding approaches for communities in different circumstances, providing students who are not succeeding with the differentiated supports they need to get ready for future success, in turn benefiting our state as a whole.

It is important to acknowledge the structural barriers that keep inequities in place. Some studies suggest that school segregation is worse today than it was in the 1960s. In Boston, schools are more segregated now than they were before busing began in the 1970s. According to the Education Trust, school districts serving the largest populations of Black, Latino or Native American students across the country receive about 13 percent less local and state funding per student than those serving the fewest students of color. Students in poorer communities are often placed in classrooms with less experienced teachers.

Isn’t it unfair to rest our consciences on equal support for learners who grow up in places impacted so persistently by historical economic and social disparities? And isn’t it self-defeating to keep pretending that equal resources and uniform approaches to learning are enough to elevate outcomes for those on whom our collective future depends? What is impeding progress across the board is not lack of effort, low parental responsibility or other confused notions about class or racial predetermination. The limits of our success as a state are about the realities of the system, how it is funded and how it ironically operates to tacitly reinforce inequities through an embrace of equality.

This challenge is not just about numbers and spreadsheets — it is about values and beliefs. Public education has defined much of our success as a nation. Americans value individualism and competition — things that have come to define our approach to education all too well. But Americans also share values of fairness, community and progress.

To ensure a commitment to our collective future, we must excite community deliberations about the core purposes of our education system. We must decide if we are about hosting an unfair competition of individuals vying for limited opportunities or if we are about correcting persistent, deep disparities and acknowledging their impact in the name of preparing our state as whole for a successful future.

This means inviting authentic engagement around what students need to succeed. It means candidly shining a light on the tensions and limits that unchecked structural racism promotes. And it means embracing the reality that it is in our best interest to develop the inherent talents of all of our students so that our state has leaders with the knowledge, skills and dispositions needed to sustain a thriving democracy.

The good news is that communities are ready to have these conversations and there are tools available to assist.

By intentionally and bravely pursuing this public discourse — and embracing funding approaches that remedy enduring educational disparities — we can create a stronger democracy, informed communities and thriving economies. This is putting our money where our future is, and it’s a way of fully living up to our state’s reputation as a national role model in education.

Nick Donohue is president and CEO of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

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