THE TOWN OF WESTON spends over $24,000 a year to educate each of their public school students. In the city of Fall River, we spend almost $10,000 dollars less, even though our students come to school with far greater needs, because they are from families who live at or below the poverty line or are English language learners.
Do Fall River parents love their children less than Weston parents do? Obviously not. The difference is due to the simple and enduring fact that that Weston has far more revenue to spend on its schools than does Fall River.
The historic McDuffy court case and the subsequent passage of the state’s landmark Education Reform Act of 1993 were supposed to alleviate the differences between school district spending by increasing the state’s contribution to local schools. In the Hancock case more than a decade later, the Supreme Judicial Court reaffirmed the principles set forth in the McDuffy case, while noting that the state had not yet achieved what the constitution commands.
In the decade since the Hancock decision, Beacon Hill’s commitment has continued to falter, year after year, as places such as Fall River and other Gateway Cities continue to experience school budget reductions at the same time as the complicated needs of educating students gets more and more expensive. State education funding has fluctuated wildly and remains below 2001 levels, even as the needs of our students have grown.
The fact is, in the 25 years since the court required a new era in school funding, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has abandoned its constitutional duty to ensure that all students receive a quality education. Our local public school districts are splintered between the haves and the have-nots. For students in far too many communities who attend schools that are woefully underfunded, our state’s proud history and national reputation as a leader in public education is now just an empty story.
The Legislature’s own Foundation Budget Review Commission in 2015 found that the state’s funding formula fails to account for the true costs of educating low-income students, English language learners, and special education needs students, and ignores the escalating cost of health insurance. The failure of successive executive administrations and legislatures, despite good intentions, to address these rising costs has strangled poorer school districts to the point that we have reached a crisis.
Fall River is one of many such communities. Although our local school committee has honorably prioritized reducing class size at the K-12 level, we still have classrooms that regularly exceed 30 students, as compared to more wealthy communities where class sizes above 20 students are rare.
Year after year of budget cuts have led to schools without librarians and the need for more counseling supports, special education professionals, and support paraprofessionals. Investments in technology, equipment, supplies, and texts are urgent. In Fall River, we have amazing faculty and staff but inequitable school funding results in huge disparities in our educator salaries as compared to wealthier districts. Dozens of Gateway City communities around the state face a similar predicament; and many rural districts are stretched to the breaking point as well.
This is not just a shame. It is unlawful. The good people in state government on Beacon Hill cannot simply choose to ignore our urban and rural school systems that are unable to provide all that the court deemed essential to an adequate public education. And, as long as access to a quality education is allowed to remain a function of zip code, the state is also in violation of the Equal Protection Clause in the Massachusetts constitution. Underfunding disproportionately harms students of color who live in less wealthy communities. As long as that is true, funding disparities will continue to have an outsized and unconstitutionally disproportionate effect on students of color, those who speak a first language other than English, and those impacted by poverty.
In response to these unconstitutional inequities, the Council for Fair School Finance – a coalition of stakeholders in pre-K-to-12 education, including Lawyers for Civil Rights, the NAACP, the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, local and statewide education unions, and many others – will continue the fight for the constitutionally-mandated quality education that is the right of all students. This same coalition fought for fair school funding in the McDuffy and Hancock cases. If legal action is needed again, these thoughtful and driven stakeholders are fully prepared to take their case to the state’s highest court.
Public school students cannot wait any longer for the governor and the Legislature to act: our student achievement gaps are growing wider each day. Our coalition is ready to go to court, and will do so if our state’s elected leaders do not act to fulfill the Commonwealth’s obligation before yet another class of students enters schools that are being underfunded and perpetuate the status quo.
Matthew Malone is the superintendent of the Fall River Public Schools, having also served as superintendent of the Brockton Public Schools and the Swampscott Public Schools. He served as state secretary of education from 2013-2015 under former governor Deval Patrick.