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Teachers union launches campaign to increase school funding

Catherine McGloin

Educators across the state launched a grassroots campaign this week to put pressure on the Legislature to address the $1.5 billion funding deficit in state public school spending.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association and the Boston Teachers Union are leading a coalition of community, civic and faith groups that have joined the Fund Our Future campaign to lobby for an increase in state education funding by more than $1.5 billion a year by May 1, 2019.

“We strongly believe in a multi-stakeholder campaign,” said BTU President Jessica Tang, adding that the statewide campaign’s purpose is to “correct the state’s underinvestment and failed obligation to fully fund our public school system.”

“Our students are out of time,” MTA President Merrie Najimy told the Banner in a phone interview on Monday, ahead of the campaign’s official launch at the State House on Tuesday, Dec. 18. “This is money that is owed, it is money that needs to come with no more bureaucracy, no more red tape.”

Coalition members plan to file a Fund Our Future bill in the Legislature in January. The bill would commit $1 billion to K-12 public schools and $500 million to public higher education.

The origins of the current funding shortfalls faced by Massachusetts’ public schools can be traced back to 1993, when students and educators from 16 towns sued the state for not providing adequate or equal educational opportunity to all its residents.

The Supreme Judicial Court agreed with their conclusions, prompting the Legislature to pass the Education Reform Act. Provisions of this bill included $2 billion of Chapter 70 education funding for public schools over a 10-year period, and the introduction of the now much-maligned foundation budget formula.

The formula was designed to eliminate funding disparities between school districts, and it changed the way in which the state allocated public education funds. No longer based solely on the amount of property taxes raised in each locale, the formula also took into consideration the size of the school district’s population and its socio-economic composition.

Fast-forward 25 years and the formula remains much the same as it was in the early 1990s, despite sharp increases in the cost of special education, English language instruction and employee health care coverage. Municipal leaders in Brockton and Worcester have in recent months spoken openly about suing the state.

“The foundation budget has been broken for a decade or more,” said Najimy, who is fighting to ensure all students “get the resources so that they have the robust, rich liberal arts education they deserve.”

An education reform bill was proposed in the House and Senate last summer, but after months of back-and-forth over provisions and funding, no significant change to the budget formula was agreed upon.

“The public has been watching the Legislature fail time and time again,” said Najimy, adding that the purpose of the coalition’s campaign is to build enough pressure to force lawmakers to act. “If there’s political will, anything can happen,” she said.

Tang noted that Boston’s underfunding situation is unique because although property taxes are high, half of the city’s land is owned by nonprofits who are exempt from payment.

“The Legislature needs to act to change the funding formula that is no longer sufficient,” she said.

In addition to shortfalls in state Chapter 70 education funds, Tang said the state has failed to fund charter school reimbursements for the last six years, costing BPS schools almost $30 million in lost financial support.

Education reformers plan to work in their communities to raise $1 billion for public schools, pre-school through grade 12, and more than $500 million for public higher education at a time when financial support for public colleges and universities is down $500 million annually.

The MTA has issued a petition that it is encouraging supporters to sign, and the organization’s website is asking advocates to “raise some hell” through local action, leafleting at public events and using social media to pressure local school committees.

“Policymakers must feel the heat,” the website reads.

Promising action, Tang told the Banner, “It is time. It’s long overdue and the students can’t wait. There’s definitely an urgency to correct the situation and for students to get the resources and the opportunities they deserve.”

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