Brockton, a down-at-the-heels Massachusetts town, has been a bell weather of education reform for more than a quarter of a century, ever since it spearheaded a class-action lawsuit charging inequitable school funding, which served as a catalyst for the state’s historic 1993 Education Reform Act. That law, a grand bargain that traded increased school funding for greater accountability, would help make the Bay State the nation’s top performer in education, its kids outscoring every other state on the NAEP, the nation’s report card, as well as most foreign countries on international tests.
But the law’s foundation budget formula, which was supposed to accurately calculate what it costs to provide an “adequate” education for every Massachusetts child, whether she lives in a rich district or a poor one, is now out of date, according to a recent Massachusetts review commission. In addition, recent changes in the way the state calculates the number of poor children in each district short change towns like Brockton, which has a high population of undocumented children.
So, Brockton is getting ready to renew its fight for equitable funding for its schools, which serve a community of mostly poor, immigrant kids. Kathleen Smith, the superintendent of Brockton public schools, said she is now actively searching for a lawyer who will take the case on a pro-bono basis. Smith says she even spoke to Michael Weisman, the attorney who represented Jami McDuffy, the lead plaintiff in the historic equity lawsuit, but he said he wouldn’t be available.
“With high-stakes testing, when every diploma depends on how students do on an online testing platform,” and when many of the richest districts spend three-times the foundation formula and “have one-to-one laptops for their students never mind what they have in their homes–ipads, computers, cell phones,” Brockton is seeing its funding slip further and further behind, said Smith in an interview last week.
Ironically, Brockton’s latest struggle for equitable funding comes at a time when its flagship high school, the largest in the state, just achieved Level One status, which is reserved for the top-performing schools in the state. The achievements of Brockton High, which has undergone a remarkable years-long turnaround catalyzed, in large part, by the historic ed-reform law, has endured despite aforementioned funding difficulties, which have resulted, among other things, in ballooning class sizes that its principal Sharon Wolder has called unsustainable.
Last year a commission reviewing the Massachusetts funding formula found that the Bay state seriously underestimates the costs of educating the state’s neediest children, calculating that, in 2016, more than $568 million would be required to meet those needs. The commission’s findings note that “[t]he actual costs of health insurance and special education have far surpassed the assumptions built into the formula for calculating the foundation budget. As a result, those costs have significantly reduced the resources available to support other key investments.”
The review commission’s findings read like a text-book case for the education-funding plight of poor town’s like Brockton:
A consistent point made by the superintendents and educators with whom we spoke was a sharp rise in students with interrupted education (SIFE) and students with limited or interrupted formal education (SLIFE), often children from war torn regions, or refugees, who have serious social and emotional needs and arrive at school with little to no formal education for school districts to build upon. This challenge is exacerbated at the high school level, where such gaps in learning must be made up in an extremely short time frame, often with highly staff-intensive interventions involving class size of 10 or less per teacher, and support staff as well.
If Brockton seeks relief from the courts, however, it will not be because of the inadequacies of the foundation funding formula because, however outdated it is, the state is still meeting its obligations under the law.
What has “handed us an entry into an equity of education lawsuit,” says Kathleen Smith, who has been considering a lawsuit for over a year, is a decision driven by the administration of Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, who changed the way low-income students are counted in the state. Instead of relying on the free-and-reduced lunch forms that families filled out each school year, Massachusetts now counts only families that have been “direct certified” for some form of state assistance, such as SNAP (food stamps) or Medicaid. According to Smith, the new rule introduces “systemic bias” against towns like Brockton and other so-called sanctuary cities that are home to large numbers of undocumented immigrants who do not register for public services. Brockton is home to large numbers of refugees from Haiti, many of whom began flocking to the city after the devastating 2010 earthquake, as well as from Cape Verde. (Students from both countries typically come to Brockton without speaking English and most have had their schooling interrupted.)
Undocumented immigrants “don’t fill out the census; they are not going to sign up for state benefits,” says Smith. “These kids are in school, but they are under the radar in every other way.”
The new rules, according to Smith, have reduced by a third the official “poverty rate” for Brockton schools, which will cut future funding to the schools. “No way we went from 81 percent low-income to being 55 percent,” says Smith referring to the latest data on Brockton following introduction of the direct-certification rules. “Those kids didn’t go away.”
Brockton has faced other major financial challenges this year as a charter school, New Heights, was approved against overwhelming objections from the community, and then failed to open on time. The school has since opened in Norwood, 22 miles away from Brockton. The charter school struggled to meet its 315 enrollment target. Smith says she will carefully document the number of children who return to Brockton public schools during the course of the academic year.
The charter school is expected to siphon off $10 million per year from the school district, about 6 percent of its budget.
Brockton is contemplating another equity funding law suit just as the state is getting ready to vote on Question Two, a ballot initiative, this November, that would, essentially, blow up the cap on charter schools by allowing 12 new charters to open each year in perpetuity. That would mean a charter-school growth rate three-to-four times the level Massachusetts has seen historically, according to Senator Stan Rosenberg, president of the Massachusetts Senate, putting enormous new pressures on traditional public schools. Regardless of what happens with Question Two, said Rosenberg in an interview in August: “We need to put $1.2 to 1.4 billion new dollars into public schools.”
Even if Question Two is defeated, the future looks hazy for continuing the state’s impressive education trajectory. “In 1993, all the stars were aligned,” says Rosenberg. The education law brought together a Republican governor, the democratic leaders of the Massachusetts House and Senate and a business community, all of whom were determined to produce a bi-partisan approach to education reform.
Last summer, Rosenberg and several of his colleagues proposed a law called The Rise Act, which sought a “targeted cap” lift on charter schools in underperforming districts and an increase in overall funding for Massachusetts schools. It also sought to address many of the problems with charter schools, such as lack of transparency and creaming.
But the stars are no longer aligned in Massachussetts. The Rise Act went no where. The governor and his education secretary are banking on nothing but charters to improve schools in Mass. even though charters played virtually no role in the impressive performance of Massachusetts in the 20-or-so years following the 1993 education law. Once again, poor and struggling Brockton may have to serve as the catalyst for an equitable and rational approach to school reform.