Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Doomed to repeat McDuffy?

You know what Santayana wrote: "Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it."
After today's Foundation Budget Review Commission meeting, I am very concerned that we may be heading that way with the Commission.

It's been clear since the last meeting (at least) that there's a bit of a split among some on the Commission between those who just want to get this done in some fashion and those who want to be sure that all of the foundation budget is fully investigated and covered. This led to the "it has to be done by June/we need to get everything in" compromise at the last meeting. And we certainly saw more of this today: from Francomano's motion to amend the minutes to be certain all would be included in the June report, to the attempted pre-positioning on where the special education number came from, to an outsized reaction on possible preschool funding, this back and forth happened several times. I think that both Madeloni and Jehlen expressed this well at different times, asking the question of what makes for an adequate education--something the Commission is charged with but so far has not considered--and how that is best addressed by the state.

The lone citation of McDuffy today came from Tom Moreau, who represents Secretary Peyser when he is not there. In response to Francomano's concern about the removal of local control on spending, he noted that McDuffy found (as the state constitution says) that responsibility for education lies with both "legislatures and magistrates," that is, both the state and the local government. His argument was that it was in keeping for various accountability ties to be imposed by the state.
That is not, however, what largely is being argued in McDuffy, nor the primary concern in the follow-up case, Hancock. It is the FUNDING mechanism that the court found was failing children in Massachusetts, not an accountability system. While the act that was intended to remedy the court's finding for the plantiffs did bring in various standards and measures (which, as I've pointed out before, we aren't really doing, either), it is the funding formula with which the Commission is charged, just as it was the primary concern of McDuffy.
The state hadn't and still hasn't fulfilled its FUNDING obligations. That remains to be done.

In finding for the plantiffs, McDuffy also found that the language of the Constitution is"not merely aspirational or hortatory, but obligatory." Thus I was very concerned today to hear several statements that the special education rate should be "aspirational." First, this is also not in the law, not in the charge to the Commission (no, not even in the "efficient and effective allocation" section), and not within the purview of the consideration. I assume the recommendation is made based on some assumption that districts are over inflating  special education costs. This is a serious charge and one that should be made straightforwardly if it is the basis of the recommendation. I would argue that districts are doing no such thing. Thus an "aspirational" special education rate leaves us in districts with the impossible choice of either under diagnosing special education needs in our student population--unethical as well as illegal--or not having those charges fully recognized. Neither is a direction I think the state really wishes us to go in. This is just another attempt at corner-cutting.

Finally, the proposal for accountability in funding, which would limit districts to spending their increases in funding to particular areas continues to miss why the Commission is needed in the first place. The state has not--twenty plus years on--fulfilled the responsibility with which it was charged in 1993. Bluntly, the state hasn't done its job. For the state then to turn around and cast a judging eye on districts, which have been left with a formula that not only has not been realistic, but has left with us fewer dollars (considering inflation) than we had in 2008 is hypocritical, to say the least. The state needs to do its job.
The list also misses entirely the point made (repeatedly) by MassBudget: that districts have pulled dollars from other areas--VARIOUS other areas--in order to fund the overwhelming costs of special education and health care. If you check out various districts at that second link, you'll find that different districts have responsed to the undercalculation of the foundation budget in various ways. Some who can have funded over foundation. Some have pulled money from teachers and professional development. Not all districts, however, have pulled funds from the areas the Commission was considering today. Worcester, for example, is funding facilities at 47% of the foundation rate. It is outrageous for the Commission to finally rectify its long-standing unfulfulled obligation, only to then require that we spend the funds in areas other than those that have been left underfunded.

As McDuffy closes:
As did these courts, we have declared today the nature of the Commonwealth's duty to educate its children. We have concluded the current state of affairs falls short of the constitutional mandate. We shall presume at this time that the Commonwealth will fulfil its responsibility with respect to defining the specifics and the appropriate means to provide the constitutionally-required education.
We have "presume[d]" for some time. Time to "provide the constitutionally-required education."

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