Will Massachusetts Continue to Lead?

Massachusetts students consistently rank at the top of the charts nationally and internationally, but these results do not tell the full story: while 4th and 8th graders had the highest performance on standardized tests in 2015, the Commonwealth’s achievement gap based on socioeconomic status was the third highest in the nation. Massachusetts students are performing extraordinarily well, but they are doing so in spite of yawning achievement and opportunity gaps.

A 2015 report commissioned by the legislature and compiled by the Foundation Budget Review Commission revealed an annual $700-$800 million budget shortfall in Massachusetts based on current costs and what was committed under the Massachusetts Reform Act of 1993. Districts and schools, as a part of the 1993 “grand bargain,” committed to implementing higher standards and the new MCAS accountability system in return for increased resources. Massachusetts continues to have some of the most rigorous standards and assessments in the nation, but the funding formula has not been adjusted to address the increasing health care and special education costs faced by districts.

 The legislature, with Senator Chang-Diaz playing a leadership role, has been exploring options for rectifying the annual education deficit. The House and Senate held a joint hearing on July 25, 2017 on Senate Bill 223 which calls for the update to the education formula.  

The Foundation Budget Review Commission recognized the link between this financial shortfall and the achievement and opportunity gaps we see, especially in the large districts and gateway cities. In order to address some of the inequities, the Commission called for increased funds for programs effective at boosting outcomes for low-income students, such as extended learning time, wraparound services, instructional improvement, class size reduction, and early education. Fixing the deficit is the next logical step to interrupt the inequity in opportunity and access that creates the Commonwealth’s paradox of high levels of achievement and one of the greatest achievement gaps in the country.

I have been proud to work with state leaders over the last fifteen years to put in place innovations like the Expanded Learning Time (ELT) Initiative in urban schools across the Commonwealth. Working with my friend and colleague, the late Mitchell Chester and his great team, we supported the ELT initiative in schools across the state as well as district-wide in Lawrence, which is currently in state receivership as part of a turnaround effort. Commissioner Chester and Receiver Jeff Riley made ELT a priority and restructured the district’s school funding to support the 200-300 increase in annual hours.  At the Guilmette Elementary School, that hasn’t led to just extra support in English and math: students participate in an array of programming on Friday afternoons at the nearby Boys and Girls Club. The innovative partnership allows the Guilmette teachers to engage in school-based professional learning during that time. These are the kinds of supplemental educational experiences we need all children in Massachusetts to access.

I am not a tax-and-spend liberal. I am a moderate on fiscal issues. But those of us with resources are spending thousands of dollars on our children’s educational experiences in and beyond school and, as I think about the future of our state and all of our children, I believe supporting the Fair Share Amendment on the 2018 ballot is the right thing to do for a wealthy state like ours. If passed next November, the tax is projected to bring in nearly $2 billion annually to bolster education and transportation infrastructure spending. The legislature and the Governor will not invest new resources in education - at the level we need them - without this tax.

Opponents may argue that increased funding doesn’t always lead to improved student outcomes. It is true that factors such as teacher and school leadership quality are important levers that money cannot buy. It is also true that not all districts and schools will use resources wisely and results will be mixed. However, most of the highest performing schools serving low-income students in the state (including KIPP and other charter schools) offer expanded learning time. The strategic investment in programs such as ELT can bridge the gap to learning experiences that many low-income students do not have access to. Requiring schools to develop a strong redesign plan and - in return for the additional funding - to show results over time is a great new “grand bargain.” The imperative is to invest in this powerful new school model that gives all students access to the opportunities needed for success in high school, higher education, and careers. We must continue to raise the bar for what qualifies as a high quality, equitable education system. This tax is our singular opportunity to do that. If we want to move beyond the “good for many” towards an education system that provides “quality for all,” it is imperative that we pass this tax.