Tuesday, June 30, 2015

"The progressive funding behind the Massachusetts 'miracle' is a thing of the past."

Professor Bruce Baker, "The Collapse of State School Finance Systems & Why It Matters"
In the flurry of the last week of school, I didn't get a chance to call your attention to information calculated and published by Professor Bruce Baker last week that has direct relevance to the conversation Massachusetts is having about the foundation budget.

Baker every year puts together a list of most financially disadvantaged districts (dating back to 2012); that is districts with:
  • More than 50% higher census poverty rate than the average for all districts sharing the same labor market.
  • Less than 90% of the state and local revenue per pupil of the average for all districts sharing the same labor market.
You can find his most updated post on this here. Now, notice what this means: this means that these communities are not only significantly poorer than the communities around them; it also means that they funding education at rates that are less than the communities around them. As Baker argues in this post and others, and as has been recognized by the foundation budget formula, this is exactly backwards. We know that students who are starting out from greater disadvantage need more resources to have the good chances of success.

This matters for Massachusetts because it is this notion on which the foundation budget formula rests. We all, regardless of what town we live in, have a stake in the future success of all kids; a "commonwealth" is, after all, what we are. That kids who may have had less nutrition even prenatally, may have had less exposure to experiences that develop languages, may have had the myriad of disadvantages that poverty bring along with them need appropriate resources to succeed is recognized by the settlements of McDuffy. Beginning with the Ed Reform Act of 1993, Massachusetts has had one of the most progressive education funding systems in the country.

Which is why this chart is particularly troubling:

We have catastrophically slid downward over the past eight or so years. We are no longer funding education on the same progressive system that we were, and are sliding closer and closer to having a regressive system.

In fact, this has become such a slide that the list Baker compiled on the most disadvantaged districts includes: 

  • Lowell
  • Everett
  • Chelsea
  • Lynn
  • Revere
  • Brockton
The scatter plot is interesting on this:

As Baker says:
Here, the remaining progressiveness of the Massachusetts school finance system is driven almost entirely by funds targeted to the City of Boston (which, by no means, is to suggest that Boston has received adequate support given its needs, but rather, that Boston has been provided relatively more adequate support than some similarly high poverty districts). Other high need districts are left out. Massachusetts has a surprising number of relatively large enrollment districts that qualify as financially disadvantaged in my previous post (and here, by the same measures).  The progressive funding behind the Massachusetts “miracle” is a thing of the past.
To Baker's conclusion, I'd also point out that the minimum aid increases for non-foundation budget systems may be popular, but they aren't progressive.

So what are we to do?
First, let's recognize that the Foundation Budget Review Commission is timely. We need very much to be having this conversation now.
However, note that much of the conversation at the Commission has not recognized that we have and are constitutionally required to fund a progressive education funding system. The overblown concern over what will pass, when the Commission has been asked for a report; the discussion over tying funds that are overdue for payment to various requirements and schemes; the seeming dismissal by some that districts have been starved for aid and have ground to make up; all of these are not focused on the very real issue we have here:
Our neediest kids are being starved of resources.
As the plantiffs in McDuffy argued:
The financing "system,"... is responsible both for the wide disparity in funding among the schools in different communities of the Commonwealth, and for the insufficiency of school funds in the towns and cities in which they live and attend school.
As evidenced above, this is again the case.

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