Saturday, October 17, 2015

Thoughts on yesterday's Foundation Budget Review Commission

With fifteen days out from their due date, and a bulleted list of eleven things to wrestle with, plus additional suggestions members had about reporting, accountability, and the like, the Foundation Budget Review Commission met yesterday.
Let me first again cheer this from David Bunker, in response to Ed Moscovitch (he who wrote the foundation formula) scoffing that districts don't know their foundation budget amounts:
Let's give a hat tip here to Mass Budget and Policy Center and every school business officer who has pounded how the foundation budget works into every budget presentation for years (yes, ours certainly included).
Thus, when district after district comes forward and can give a list of areas that are underfunded, they know whereof they speak. And that's particularly true of the conversations Bunker had these past weeks with districts.
Of the eleven items they had left to grapple with yesterday, they spent the greatest amount of time (as Bunker had been tasked with focusing) on ELL and low income. No doubt, they warrant the attention. Bunker's report, which was based off interviews he conducted in a number of districts (including Worcester) came in large measure from successful school turnaround efforts, and what it had cost to run them.
However, what was supposed to be a conversation about low income and ELL also appeared to encompass the conversation about wraparound services, low class sizes in primary grades, and extended day. The conversation assumed that the low income increment should serve as the means to those ends, without those being separately considered. It's not at all clear that such a merger appropriately represents the need.
The good news on this front--and it is a change!--is that the Commission appears to have backed away from the requirement that any additional dollars be spent on areas that they would determine. This change was particularly marked in Peisch, who commented that she now understood that something that worked in 70 or 80% of districts might not work in the others, and that it would be wrong to tie the districts' hands in that circumstance. So thank you to whomever has been talking to Rep. Peisch!
There was a separate report brought in on professional development and coaches. It didn't (from my read of the conversation) appear to go much of anywhere.
The need for high-quality preschool will be "recognized," though they will not be recommending anything on it.

Two items were being skipped until brought to the attention of the committee: in-district special education,  for which models have substantially changed since 1993, and inflation, which misses a 2.2% rate in 1994 and included a 3.04% rate in a year (FY10) when it should have been 6.75%.
To give you an idea of what that looks like: the 2.2% is $7 million for Worcester; the difference of the other is $12.9 million.
Every single year.
It was late in the meeting, but that is when we saw the reoccurance of the "we can't say that; it's too expensive" claim from the Chair. I agree that it's a lot of money; it's money that our district is missing. The state didn't halt inflation; it pretended it didn't exist. That doesn't work when you have real bills to pay.

I said this before, but it needs to be said again: the job of the Commission is to report out on reality. The reality is that there are substantial sections of the foundation that are undercalculated. Yes, that is a lot of money. The only way the Legislature is going to have a realistic idea of where we are relative to reality is for the Commission to tell them, though.
And ignoring it doesn't make it go away. It just pushes the problem back down to the districts.
That isn't how McDuffy found that this works.

I've included the preliminary recommendations (please be clear that this is a draft) after the break.

  1. ELL: convert the ELL increase from a base rate to an increment on the base rate; apply the increment to vocational ELL students as well; equalize the increment for each segment including high school to the current middle school increment of 34%
  2. Low income: increase the increment for districts with high concentrations of low income students; ensure that any new definitions of economically disadvantaged properly count all high needs students
  3. leave the exact calculation of each increment to legislative action, based on further review of data and debate, but with guidance from the Commission that national literature recommends a low-income weighting of 40-100% and that practices in model districts in the Commonwealth suggest that multiple concurrent internventions are necessary to effectively close the achievement gap.
  4. establish a better data collection and reporting system that allows for greater access to school-level expenditures and data, and tracks funding allocated for ELL and low income students to esnure that spending is targeted to the intended populations.
  5. require each district to post a plan online about how it will use the extra funds calculated in the ELL and low income allotments and what outcome metrics they will use to measure the success of the programs so funded. The plan will be public but not subject to approval by DESE.

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