Tuesday, April 26, 2016

"It shall be declared also that the constitutional duty is not being currently fulfilled by the Commonwealth."

This is a wonkish one, but absolutely vital to our discussion of school finance in Massachusetts.
These cases are remanded to the county court for entry of a judgment declaring that the provisions of Part II, c. 5, Section 2, of the Massachusetts Constitution impose an enforceable duty on the magistrates and Legislatures of this Commonwealth to provide education in the public schools for the children there enrolled, whether they be rich or poor and without regard to the fiscal capacity of the community or district in which such children live. It shall be declared also that the constitutional duty is not being currently fulfilled by the Commonwealth. 
conclusion of McDuffy v. Secretary  
The House took up their budget yesterday, first hearing all amendments that had any financial impact (my list of education-related amendments is here). The most notable change the House made in the budget over the Governor's budget is the $55 per pupil minimum, as compared to the $20 per pupil minimum the Governor's budget had.

Now, let me start by allowing that not believing in a progressive funding system is a perfectly legitimate political position. One can think that school funding should not, at the state level, be allocated with regard to what districts and what students have the highest needs. I'd argue that it's wrong, and, in Massachusetts, it's certainly unconstitutional, but that is a political position.

It appears, unfortunately, to be one that some in the State House, on both sides of the political spectrum hold, whether they know it or not.

To see what I mean, you may want to take a look what what I've put into a spreadsheet, which starts with last year's budget, adds the Governor's proposal, and then adds the House's proposal. In every case, there's not only the dollar difference, but also the percent change (a more meaningful measure, I'd argue, given the massively different sizes of districts).

If we were running a truly progressive system--if we were running JUST the foundation budget, without minimum aid of any sort--you'd expect the gains in state aid to follow changes in enrollment (straight enrollment increases or increased need) for districts that have less municipal wealth (in other words, poorer districts).

As you'll see if you sort by percent change (column E for FY16 to Governor's budget; column H for Governor to House; column J for FY16 to House), that isn't what is true of this budget at all.

Here are the ten districts seeing the biggest percent change under the Governor's proposed budget (sorted by column E):

AVON 32%
WALES 15.7%

That's the $20 per pupil minimum increase at work.

The House, of course, jumped that per pupil minimum up to $55 per pupil. As best as I can tell from going through the numbers (so no, this isn't inside baseball), it looks as though that was deliberately selected to be just high enough to pull in Everett, Revere, Chelsea, Brockton, and similar, which are the districts that were struggling to get their economically disadvantaged counts anywhere near the real number of poor kids that they serve. Rather than fix the calculation for this year in some way, the House just stuck in a minimum increase. However, that doesn't best serve the kids that are actually poor, including, ironically, those districts. Here are the ten districts that see the biggest percent gain going from the Governor's $20 to the House's $55 (sorting by column H):

WESTON 2.47%
DOVER 2.3%
MARION 2.29%

Note, of course, that this is added onto the above, as it's a gain OVER the Governor's. Thus the top ten list going from FY16 to the House budget is the same as the Governor's.

Any list in Massachusetts that goes from Weston to Wellesley is eye catching, of course, but the Governor's budget, which give substantial increases to places like Cambridge and Edgartown, which fund their schools at 50% or 100% more than the minimum required, also warrant attention. This is state aid going to districts that not only can well afford to fund their schools from local resources; they're doing that and more, and they're doing so, wanted or not, with a substantial assist from the state.
This state aid ALLOWS wealthier districts to fund at more than minimum, thus avoiding the consequences of the undercalculation of the foundation budget, while at the same time continuing to fund poorer districts at the minimum allowed.

That's wrong.
And in Massachusetts, it's unconstitutional.

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