As a senior in high school, I was primed for the world ahead of me. Class sizes were reasonable, supplies at my disposal, teachers available for individualized attention, and we followed a strong curriculum that wasn’t structured around standardized testing. In the 18 years since I’ve graduated, our schools have lost classroom aides, social workers, and secretaries. We’ve cut programs, languages, proficiency and after-school activities, rebudgeted and pushed through override after override as the cost of educating students rose an average of 3 percent every year for Massachusetts public schools.
Today, most children in that system have never attended an elementary school with a full-time school librarian, thanks in part to our reliance on technology, and the fact that our system has deemed them nonessential. Librarians are trained to provide students a path to credible resources, show them how to use a database, and teach them a myriad of technical skills that are increasingly more valuable. In an age of unlimited information, we have to value the people who teach us to evaluate it. Librarians aren’t the only shorthanded position, though. Many students have never had adequate support staff to meet the needs of their classmates, and some have started the school year with substitute teachers. They have endured leaky ceilings, broken clocks (which many aren’t even taught to read), shared books, computers, pens and crayons. When supplies runs out, teachers often dip into their own pockets to ensure students have enough.
This isn’t how it was supposed to be. In 1993, the mother of education reform was signed into law, the funding was to ensure that every child, rich and poor, in every part of the Commonwealth received an equal and adequate education. This funding system was based on two ideas, that the greater needs of some students require more money for their education, and that the state has a responsibility to ensure that students in less wealthy districts receive a comparable education. That is a constitutional guarantee, supported by a legal decision against the state that same year.
The Commonwealth was charged with amending and adjusting public education funding as economics changed over time, but never did. So when the Legislature finally did convene the Foundation Budget Review Commission a few years ago, the system was dated. While basic costs may go up by 3 percent each year, other costs go up by much more, which devastates local budgets. Special education looked very different, and was less effective, 25 years ago, and the costs recognized by the funding system are unrealistic. Back then, it was assumed that most kids who didn’t speak English in our schools were young and would stop needing language support by the time they reached middle and high school. In reality, English learners come to us at all ages. We not only have more low-income students than we did in 1993, we have learners who bring a scope of need with which we have only begun to grapple.
These premises formed the basis of the reforms proposed by the Commission in October 2015, who estimated that the budget for Massachusetts public schools was being underestimated by at least $1 billion a year. Districts have handled this two ways, Those that can have fallen back into the old system, ever more dependent on property taxes to shore up their budgets but able to appropriately fund their children’s education. Districts that cannot simply run short.
We are teaching our children that some of them are worthy of all the resources we’re capable of providing, and some of them are not. This especially impacts Gateway cities and students of color, who have seen the largest enrollment increases over the past 10 years. Massachusetts ranks near the bottom in the nation in the achievement gap, and we desperately need reform.
Every budget cycle in which nothing is done is another bit of the future knowing it isn’t valued enough to be supported, another graduating class not receiving the education we need them to have. Re-working our foundation budget is imperative to getting districts more money. The Massachusetts Municipal Association has requested the state increase aid by $100 per student. The governor’s proposal included an additional $20 in aid per student, and the senate voted for an additional $30, which is still far too low. On Cape, Monomoy currently spends the most per pupil at $855, and the lowest is Bourne at $457. With student choice, it’s no wonder that Monomoy has high out-of-district enrollment. We can do better to serve all of Cape’s children, not just a few.
Two recent studies from the economics departments at the University of California Berkeley and Northwestern University suggest that investing in our public schools will generate results. Both looked at what happened to school districts following court decisions that forced states to increase funding and found that test scores gradually improved for pupils in low-income districts, both in absolute terms and relative to their peers in wealthier districts. The improvements in student achievement were fairly substantial and, according to many calculations, cost-effective.
These studies found that a $100 per-pupil increase in spending leads to 31% more completed years of education, roughly 7 percent higher wages, and a 3.2 percent reduction in the annual incidence of adult poverty. Effects are much more pronounced for children from low-income families. Additional spending increases were also associated with reductions in student-to-teacher ratios, increases in teacher salaries, and longer school years.
Schools have used funding increases to make the kinds of changes that generate results. Money alone won’t fix our broken education system, but we need a bill similar to the safe patient limits act that requires classroom sizes be capped at 17 students per teacher, which was deemed the optimal class size by the Student Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR). STAR was a four-year class size study that included over 7,000 students, 79 schools, and three class sizes, 13-17, 22-25 with one teacher, and 22-25 with a teacher and aide. The project was funded by the Tennessee General Assembly, conducted by the State Department, and supported by Harvard University. The research also reflects higher achievement in the classroom, more student engagement, increased time on task, and the opportunity for teachers to better craft their instruction to the students in the classroom. This can be accomplished by cutting excessive administration and adding more aids and support staff in our classrooms. Nelson Mandela once said “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” It’s time we give our children the knowledge and opportunities they deserve and prepare them to succeed, rather than continue to fail them. We need to do better. We have to do better, because we are better.