Having long recognized the urgent need for reform of the Commonwealth’s Chapter 70 school funding formula, Senator Jason Lewis applauds the recent release of recommendations by the Foundation Budget Review Commission (FBRC). The FBRC, consisting of a diverse range of legislators, state administrators, educators, and business leaders, was created by the Legislature to review the Chapter 70 school finance law, focusing on how the “foundation” spending standard is calculated and making recommendations on how that standard should be updated. The funding formula was established as part of Massachusetts’ Education Reform Act of 1993.
Earlier this year, a preliminary report was released centered on findings pertaining to health insurance and special education costs. The final report more broadly tackled a number of other issues that are of great importance to our schools. In this report, the Commission found that the way the state calculates a district’s foundation budget—the starting point in Massachusetts K-12 school financing—understates the cost of educating students to the tune of at least $1 billion per year. The report represents a consensus across the educational community that Massachusetts is falling short of its promise to provide the necessary resources to get all children to educational success.
“The Commission’s report validates what many of us have been saying for years, that costs far exceed what is assumed in the Chapter 70 formula,” said Senator Jason Lewis. “As a result, the state has not been providing sufficient Chapter 70 funds to meet the needs of our students and schools. I commend the members of the Foundation Budget Review Commission for laying out a thoughtful and comprehensive blueprint for policymakers to consider as we tackle the challenge of ensuring adequate and equitable funding for all our schools.”
As the Commission outlined, the report – which can be found online at http://www.mass.gov/legis/journal/desktop/2015/fbrc.pdf – focuses on a few key components for its financial recommendations.
First, it notes that current assumptions fail to take into account the national surge in health care costs 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, the Commission recommends 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.
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 a 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.
The report then urges an increase in 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 to proficiency. The report also urges an increase in 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, and should be enough funding to pursue multiple interventions at once—for example, a longer school day in tandem with wrap-around services. The report also builds in accountability measures by calling 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.
Acting on these recommendations would represent the first major modernization of the state’s education financing system since the Education Reform Act of 1993. While the 1993 Act called for a Commission to be established every two years, this is the first such Commission to be constituted since 2001. Many educators contend that much has changed in the past two decades, in terms of both student demographics and needs and what is known about how to successfully educate a diverse population. Updating the Chapter 70 school funding formula to reflect the actual costs being incurred by our school districts has been one of Senator Lewis’ top priorities since he began serving in the state legislature. He sponsored the legislation, ultimately included as part of the FY15 state budget, that reconstituted the Foundation Budget Review Commission last year.
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 quality pre-school as an effective practice both for closing achievement gaps and for reducing special education costs for the state and districts. It also recommended several mechanisms for improved data collection, to inform future rounds of spending decisions, at the state, local, and even school level.
The cost of school district foundation budgets are shared between the state and the local municipality, with the proportions varying depending on the wealth of the district. The report recommends that the proposed increases be phased in over the course of multiple years to avoid shocks to state or local budgets.
Senator Lewis’ testimony before the Foundation Budget Review Commission, delivered one year ago at a public hearing in Danvers, can be found online at: http://senatorjasonlewis.com/2014/11/21/senator-jason-lewis-testifies-before-education-funding-commission/.