Guest Op-Ed : Delivering on the Promise of Public Education

By Jonathan Cohn, Ward 4 Democratic Committee

Later this month, the Boston City Council will be voting on the budget for the Boston Public Schools. And it will be another year of cuts.

Although the Mayor’s Office touts the 2020 budget for BPS as the “largest ever,” the new total fails to keep up with inflation and masks the direct cuts facing many schools, such as the South End’s Blackstone Elementary School.

Boston can–and should–do more to provide the funds so that every student can get the high-quality public education they deserve. In a city with a booming economy, there is plenty of money available.

But we shouldn’t ignore the fact that the state isn’t doing its part either. Indeed, Massachusetts has not updated its funding formula state aid to public school districts since 1993. The world has changed a lot since 1993, and it’s no surprise that the cost assumptions from that year no longer hold up, especially when it comes to the costs of health care, special education, English Language Learner education, and closing income-based achievement gaps.

An outdated funding formula isn’t the only problem Boston schools face. As a result of a recent change in how the state counts low-income students (from a process based on collecting forms from families to a process based on matching with public benefit enrollments), 10,000 low-income students in BPS are currently being categorized as affluent, further reducing the aid that we receive from the state.

Yet further exacerbating this funding shortage, much of the aid the city does receive from the state gets siphoned off into charter schools. The state has promised to reimburse public school districts for this lost money, as public schools still serve the vast majority of students, but it hasn’t held up its part of the bargain.

The “foundation budget,” as it is called, is supposed to represent what a district needs to spend for its students to receive a quality education. However, Boston today has to pay a full third above its foundation budget out of its own pockets just to keep its students afloat.

Fortunately, there is a solution. Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz has filed a bill, aptly named the PROMISE Act, that would update the state’s funding formula, enable cities to more accurately count their low-income student population, and ensure a minimum level of aid for every district. Representatives Jon Santiago and Jay Livingstone have signed on to the bill. Although not yet co-sponsors, Reps Aaron Michlewitz and Chynah Tyler could play valuable roles in advancing the bill, as the chairman of the powerful Ways & Means Committee and a member of the Education Committee, respectively. Indeed, the House proved the major stumbling block on the route to passage of a similar bill last session. All of our electeds have a vital role to play in ensuring the PROMISE Act gets past the finish line before another year goes by with insufficient funds.

Massachusetts is the birthplace of public education in the U.S., and we pride ourselves in the high rankings our public schools get in national surveys year after year. But such feel-good numbers shouldn’t gloss over the fact that we have some of the highest racial and economic achievement gaps in the country. We need to start stepping up our game and investing in our students, especially the most vulnerable, so that can finally deliver on the democratic promise of public education.

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