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Sunday, December 6, 2015

One of Nation's Highest Achieving States May Go Higher: Commission Calls for Better School Funding Formula in MA

From the Education Law Prof Blog

By Derek Black
November 18, 2015

Massachusetts leads the nation in test scores and is one of only four states with fair school funding, but sees the need to increase its financial support for its PreK-12 public schools in order to provide better and more equitable opportunities for its students.

On November 2, 2015, state education leaders released the Foundation Budget Review Commission's report and recommendations. This bipartisan Commission, established by the Legislature to examine the adequacy and effectiveness of the state's current education funding formula, found that the way the state calculates school districts' foundation budgets---the starting point in Massachusetts K-12 school financing---understates the cost of educating its nearly one million students to the tune of at least $1 billion per year.

The report focuses on four components for its financial recommendations, which recognize national trends and urge funding for: the surge in health insurance premiums; the actual costs of special education; the true costs of opportunity for students learning English; and, the higher costs for the swelling numbers of students in poverty and concentrated poverty.

1.) First, it notes that current assumptions fail to take into account the national surge in health insurance premiums over the past two decades, resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars being diverted out of the classroom to cover insurance premiums.

As a result, many school districts are unable to provide core educational components like art, foreign languages, or professional development, or targeted initiatives to reach their most disadvantaged students.

To address this, they recommend that the Legislature use actual averages from the state's Group Insurance Commission---the buyer of health insurance for state employees---to set insurance costs and inflation rates in the Foundation Budget.

2.) The report's second recommendation is similar: adjust the state's calculations to more accurately reflect the current cost of special education. Because special education is a federal legal entitlement, school districts must essentially pay their special education bills first, before giving resources to other priorities.

As with health insurance, the Commission recommended more accurate projection of special education costs in the Foundation Budget, so that money may in turn flow to additional priorities. They estimate the increase to foundation budgets from this recommendation to be $115 million in FY2014 dollars.

3.) Increase the "weighting" given for English Language Learners (ELLs) in the state's calculation of educational costs, to more accurately reflect the intensive work districts must often do to bring ELL students, especially high school students, to proficiency.

4.) Increase the "weighting" given for low-income students in school districts with high concentrations of poverty, in recognition of the unique costs caused by such concentrations. The Commission noted that weightings for these districts should fall in the range of 50% to 100% above the typical per pupil cost, with enough funding to pursue multiple interventions at once---such as a longer school day in tandem with wrap-around services.

The report also calls for districts to be required to post a plan online for how they are going to use the ELL and low-income funds to serve the intended populations, and to publish their outcomes in subsequent years.

The Commission was also charged with identifying ways to use state and local dollars in the most efficient and effective manner. Under that charge, the Commission highlighted high quality pre-school as an effective practice both for closing achievement gaps and for reducing special education costs for the state and districts.

Paul Reville, recent former Massachusetts Secretary of Education and one of the original architects of the current funding formula from 1993, said:

"If enacted, the recommendations in this report restore to our communities the capacity to provide the services and supports that will be necessary to educate all students---and all means all---for success. The Commission has effectively outlined both the resources and, more importantly, the strategies necessary to close persistent achievement gaps. Now, we need to find the will to execute."

The report recommends that the proposed increases be phased in over the course of multiple years to avoid shocks to state or local budgets.

The report represents a consensus across the educational community---from legislators to teachers, school boards, administrators, department officials, researchers, advocates, and business leaders---that Massachusetts is falling short of its promise to provide the necessary resources to give all children the opportunity to reach educational success.

In its conclusion, the report reads, "We advise a keen sense of the urgency [in] addressing the identified funding gaps, and the moral imperative of reducing the remaining achievement gaps."

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