Parent Activism in the Age of Foundation Budget Formulas

My daughter is losing her computer teacher to a budget cut. Well, maybe. The principal tells us that the teacher is okay with it. The district tells us that in fact there is no cut. But explanations ring hollow when you’re upset and looking for someone to blame, and so the question became: in a funding fight, in a system as complex as education, who is to blame?

To be sure, there is plenty of responsibility to go around. Principals control staffing and programming, adding or cutting positions and programs. But then again, principals’ budgets come from the district, which bases them on complex yet imprecise algorithms to project student enrollment. But then again, districts’ per-student allocation is based a state formula that has been flawed for years and that the state has refused to fix.

So, then, who should we blame first?

At a “town hall” meeting at our school this week, most parents were in the mood to blame the two district officials in attendance. We stubbornly challenged them on the enrollment projections and the resulting budget cut. “We have a waitlist,” we said, “how can our enrollment be declining?” Short answer: enrollment is down district-wide and waitlists are not perfect proxies for demand. It was a technical answer to an emotional question. We kept pressing, unwilling to accept these answers. But with each new question, the district folks further unwound the intricacies of student assignment, enrollment projections, and budgeting statutes. In the end, the message was part solidarity and part helplessness: we agree that you need more money, they seemed to say, but we can’t get what we need from the state so we can’t give you what you want. If you want someone to blame, they implied, blame the state.

Though maybe technically accurate, this response also sounded like our plaintive emotional pleas were being cast aside. How else could we feel when we came with a grievance only to have the people in power assigns responsibility to someone else, someone not in the room? At one point, after another explanation about the impact of low state funding on schools district-wide, a woman with three grandchildren at the school spoke up in a firm and unapologetic tone. “Why are we talking about other schools?" she asked. "We need to fight for ourselves.” She pointed out that other schools -- like the exam schools, for example -- did exactly this: “They fight for what they want and they get it." The implication was that if we started caring about everyone else, then we’d end up with nothing.

She may have had a point. And yet, listening to the conversation, I thought about what a relief it must be for state legislators – who have for years abdicated their moral and legal responsibility to make school funding fair – to watch us squabble among ourselves and take up all the newspaper column inches blaming our schools for a funding formula the state has let languish into obsolesence. It takes the heat off them. It lets them sit back and take up their gambling legislation or whatever.

This was when I had what felt like my big takeaway: yes, there were inefficiencies and probably some carelessness in the district’s bureaucratic wrangling over school budgets, but focusing only on them meant we were missing the bigger fight, which was over state aid for education. My district, Boston, was getting screwed out of tens of millions of dollars every year. And, as a result, so were schools like ours. In my notes, I wrote, “We need to understand the foundation budget.”

The budget is a statement of our values
Source: Boston Public Schools,

“Foundation budget” sounds much more like an accountant’s dream than a cause célèbre for educational justice, but it is hard to think of a policy that has done more to advance (and constrain) equity at scale. After all, budgets are more than statements of how to spend money; they are statements of values (as the BPS Budget Office notes on its budget page every year). And when the state’s formula for calculating education aid consistently, year after year, fails to cover the actual costs of educating children, the value statement is something like, “We don’t actually value an adequate education.”

That’s outrageous. And unacceptable. And I’m all in on the movement to change it. I should add too that I am rather late to this party. Many activists, like Kristin Johnson and Tracy Novick, have been writing about these issues and pressing for action for years. I have learned a lot from them.

By way of brief history, the “foundation formula” was enacted as part of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993, setting forth a minimum amount of money per student deemed necessary for an adequate education. Taking account of the number and needs of students in each district, the state calculates a “foundation budget” for each district. In Boston, the foundation budget for FY2018 was $830 million (for a summary, see here). The state then calculates what it considers to be the municipality’s ability to contribute to this cost, based in part on property values and median income. In Boston, the state estimated its FY2018 contribution to be $686 million. State aid, then, fills in the gap between a municipality’s ability to pay and the foundation budget. (But as the Globe recently reported, the emphasis on property values and median income leads the state – bizarrely – to consider Boston and its affluent suburb Concord to be equivalently able to pay for education, even though 58 percent of students in Boston are economically disadvantaged compared to 6.7 percent in Concord.) Finally, many districts – Boston included – contribute money above the foundation budget. While this is theoretically a luxury, the flaws in the foundation formula have made it increasingly necessary. In FY2018, Boston’s school budget was almost $1.1 billion.

In the years since the 1993 law went into effect, the assumptions baked into the state formula have fallen well short of actual costs, meaning that districts are left to fill in larger and larger gaps between what the state provides and what they need to spend. Among the largest drivers of education costs are health insurance and special education. According to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, in 2017 the foundation budget underestimated costs of health insurance and special education by $2.63 billion statewide.

Foundation budget undercounts critical costs by $2.63 billion
Source: Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center (2018)

In 2015, recognizing the impact of these gaps on local education spending, the state legislature convened the Foundation Budget Review Commission (FBRC) to make recommendations for updating the formula. Its recommendations were uncontroversial but not cheap. State Senator and FBRC Co-Chair Sonia Chang-Diaz, who has been a steadfast champion for updating the formula, estimated the full cost of reforms to be between $900 million and $2 billion. Disagreements about the cost were one factor that ultimately sank Chang-Diaz’s FBRC-inspired reform bill last summer, prompting widespread indignation from impatient school officials and families.

With the new year, momentum is once again gathering to fix the foundation formula, and this increasingly feels like a fight where more parents like me need to get off the sidelines. Earlier this month, Chang-Diaz and her allies held a press conference to reintroduce a revamped bill (which, based on projections by Mass Budget could direct an extra $130 million to Boston). A few weeks later, the governor introduced his own bill to tackle school funding. A major difference between the two is that the governor’s bill would also increase the contributions required of cities and towns and would empower state officials to reduce aid if districts do not meet performance targets on standardized tests. Given that many of the districts most likely to be impacted by these sanctions are the same ones that have been underfunded for two decades, such requirements merely add insult to chronic injury.

Under the current formula, Boston is at a distinct disadvantage – receiving less than it needs and spending too much of what it gets on costs it can’t control. In addition to charter school tuition payments, which eat up almost the entire amount of state aid the city receives, large amounts of the district budget is spent well before it trickles down to schools: transportation costs ($116 million), health care costs ($117 million), facilities maintenance ($64 million), and more. Ultimately, school budgets like the one discussed at our “town hall” account for less than half of the total district budget.

But in our meeting, we were not focused on the larger inequities in the state formula. Instead, we were focused on what we perceived to be a singular injustice perpetrated against ourschool. And to be clear, there are serious injustices being perpetrated against individual schools. In a system where money is tied so firmly to students, children become currency. At our meeting, one of the district leaders said, “The only way to get more money is to have more students,” observing that schools able to keep more children get more money. To see the human impact of this, one need only listen to the testimony of parents, teachers, and students in some of the district’s higher-need and lesser-chosen schools.

We need to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, addressing inequity within our districts and across all districts. We need to be the grandmother at my daughter’s school and the parents and students giving testimony to the School Committee, singularly focused on making noise and demanding what we need for the schools we know best. And we need to be the city of Brockton, preparing a lawsuit to make visible systematic inequity that leaves all of their schools behind and challenges the state funding formula as morally bankrupt and legally unacceptable. And we need to be the organizers with the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance, running both local and statewide campaigns to pressure decision makers to on education funding.

With luck – no, with a committed broad-based movement for educational justice – I’m cautiously optimistic that next year’s budget “town halls” will feel a little less like funerals and a little more like celebrations.