As Massachusetts lawmakers continue to debate how to change a 26-year-old school funding formula, one local parent feels there is no time to sit and wait.
Alicia Fleming of Chicopee is a single mom whose seven-year-old son is starting second grade in the Chicopee public schools. Even though he’s only been in the district for a few years, Fleming said she is already seeing problems.
“He's got high class sizes,” she said. “He's come home on multiple occasions and told me a story about a student that seems to be having some sort of social/emotional problem that disrupted the routine flow of the classroom. He's getting a limited exposure to art education. There's no dedicated art teacher in his elementary school.”
In her work at a social justice nonprofit, Fleming learned about the controversy surrounding school funding distribution in Massachusetts and how it affects Chicopee.
“What you see is a school district that needs more and is being asked to do more, but essentially with less,” she said.
So Fleming decided to become a plaintiff in a lawsuit developed by the Council for Fair School Finance against Massachusetts and several state officials, on behalf of her son, for failing to provide adequate funding to his school district. The plaintiffs claim violation of an education clause in the state constitution guaranteeing every child the right to an adequate education.
“My son needs education in order to make his way in the world,” Fleming said. “If... he's already experiencing differences from his wealthier — and oftentimes white — counterparts, then I have no choice, really, but to fight for him. Or, I guess, the other option is to lay down and do nothing. But that's not what you do as a parent.”
Daniel Fogarty, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said the ideal outcome of the lawsuit is “the court recognizes the fact that the state is not in compliance with its obligations under the Constitution, and that it orders correction to that, such that every student across the Commonwealth receives the education that they're entitled to.”
How state aid is determined
The amount of money Massachusetts allocates to each school district depends on a Chapter 70 program formula that was established by the Education Reform Act in 1993.
The act was passed after a separate school funding lawsuit was brought by the Council for Fair School Finance. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court determined that the state had a constitutional responsibility to provide adequate funding to educate all students — and was failing to do so.
The formula determines what’s known as the foundation budget, or how much money a school district needs to meet the educational needs of all of its students. The foundation budget is higher for districts with more “high need” students, which is defined by the Massachusetts Department of Education as “either low income, economically disadvantaged, or ELL [English language learners] or former ELL, or a student with disabilities.”
Next the formula calculates what a district can pay using its own local revenue, which is subtracted from the foundation budget — and the result is a school district’s state aid. Towns can also opt to allocate more local money to their district at no penalty.
A bipartisan Foundation Budget Review Commission reviewed the Massachusetts school funding formula in 2015. It concluded that ELL and low-income students need more money to meet their educational needs than the formula allows. The commission also found the formula isn’t accounting for the rising cost of teachers’ health care.
When the formula was first established, it was supposed to be reviewed every few years. But that hasn't happened.
According to Casey Cobb, a UConn professor in education policy, there are two possible reasons for that inaction: the formula is complex, and so are the politics.
“It's redistributing money from municipalities that were receiving it under the formula,” Cobb said. “And that might be the right thing to do, ultimately. It's just that, I think, politically, it tends not to be too popular to pull money away, because of course, everybody wants to receive it.”
Some details about the lawsuit
Parents from seven Massachusetts cities and towns are plaintiffs in the lawsuit, including Chicopee and Springfield — along with the New England Area Conference of the NAACP and the nonprofit Chelsea Collaborative.
The lawsuit names as defendants some members of Governor Charlie Baker’s cabinet as well as two state education agencies.
The 98-page complaint was filed on June 13. It contains detailed accounts of the financial troubles in each of the districts — which, according to the complaint, are all low-income, property-poor communities with a higher than average percentage of high-need students and students of color.
The complaint compares the plaintiffs’ districts to eight wealthier Massachusetts districts, listing examples of how some districts with a lower percentage of high-need or students of color are better able to meet students’ needs.
Chicopee public schools elementary school class sizes are large, according to the complaint, at 25 to 26 students. And it says aging, 30-year-old textbooks aren’t being replaced, and there’s a dearth of ELL services. The complaint also cites a lack of computers, librarians and social/emotional staff.
In the fiscal year of 2019, the district eliminated 37 positions and consolidated job duties into fewer positions to make up for a $2 million shortfall. In past years, the district has had to cut summer school programs.
Laura Demakis is president of the Chicopee Education Association, which represents teachers and other staff in the district. She said that even when the district has managed to save programs like summer school, it only means other areas will lack funding.
“I can guarantee you that something else is going to be lacking,” Demakis said. “It's like robbing from Peter to pay Paul, because the funding has not changed.”
Mixed levels of support
Demakis said she supports the lawsuit because she’s frustrated that the funding formula still has not changed, despite years of advocacy.
“We are on the front lines, seeing the devastating effects that the lack of funding has on our students, and ultimately on our our cities and towns. And it has been far too long,” she said.
Superintendent Richard W. Rege said that while the district has struggled with a lack of funding, and he agrees that the funding formula has to change, he has not joined the lawsuit because he feels that it is being filed too soon.
“I felt from the very beginning that it may well be counter-productive, based upon the legislators’ pledge to really study this issue this year, and to do the absolute best that they could for public education,” Rege said.
Rege said that for the first time in years, he feels optimistic about the funding formula changing, because the lawmakers seem to “really mean business this time,” and he believes the lawsuit puts unnecessary pressure on them.
“And my feeling was, why would we hold a sword over their heads? Let's let them show that they mean business, and that they're going to do what they said they would do,” he said. “If they don't come through with the appropriate funding, and they don't live up to their pledge, then my recommendation to the school committee would be to join onto that lawsuit in a full-fledged manner.”
Current state government action
Baker signed a state budget into law on July 31 that includes $5.2 billion in Chapter 70 funding, a 5.5 percent increase from last year. According to the governor’s press release, this is “the highest-ever level of state funding for public schools in Massachusetts.”
But advocates say this increase in funding is a temporary fix that doesn’t address the underlying problem.
Under the new state budget, the Chicopee public schools are getting an additional $1.4 million.
While Rege said he was pleased, he called the funding “breathing room” that only allows the district to solve some, but not all, of its problems. He said the district needs millions more to fully support the needs of all its students.
The superintendent has so far preached patience before legal action. But he said that if Massachusetts lawmakers don’t make a start on the recommended changes to the formula by the end of the fall session, he’ll ask the Chicopee school board to join the lawsuit.
Fleming said she was “disappointed but not surprised” that the state legislature has not yet passed a bill to change the school funding formula.
“The legislature's failure to pass a bill to correct the funding formula that they themselves have deemed inadequate indicates, to me, an inability to prioritize education, and a lack of desire to provide low-income students, special education students and English Language Learners with equity,” she said.