Back to the Future in the Bay State: Brockton’s New School-Funding Lawsuit May Be Imminent

A decades-long literacy strategy at Brockton High helped transform the state’s largest, and once poorest-performing, high school

Twenty-five years ago, the Brockton school district prevailed in a lawsuit that served as a key catalyst for the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993, which radically changed the state’s approach to school funding and turned the Bay State into the gold standard for American education. Now, the town once known as Shoe City, before global competition wiped out Brockton’s major source of employment, is poised, once again, to sue the state, arguing that it is shortchanging students in poor urban districts.

Two years ago, I explained why Brockton might have a case for a new school-funding lawsuit. Last weekend, an excellent article by James Vaznis, in The Boston Globe, outlined the growing inequities between poor Massachusetts cities like Brockton and the wealthiest ones like Weston that now make a lawsuit more likely. Overall, Brockton spent $14,778 per student, during the 2016/2017 school year, while Weston spent $24,458. That meant just $1.28 per student for school supplies in Brockton, a tiny fraction of the $275 spent by Weston. More significantly, Brockton had only $3.43 per student to spend on classroom technology—at a time when state tests are given electronically—while Weston spent $210.56 per student.

“It seems to me you have a basis that the Commonwealth is not doing enough for the neediest districts,” Paul Reville, who served as education secretary under Governor Deval Patrick, told The Globe. “How can the state hold them accountable for results if they are not providing adequate resources.”

I spoke with Aldo Petronio, the Brockton school district’s chief budget officer, and learned that behind the growing inequities in funding for rich and poor school  districts—the very inequities the Massachusetts Education Reform Act (MERA) had so painstakingly sought to remedy—are state and federal policies that have served to shortchange poor children for the past decade. Three key factors, in particular, have worked against Brockton’s public schools, as well as many other poor districts in the state: The failure to maintain an “adequate” foundation budget for school districts; a focus on expanding charter schools, rather than supporting public schools; and changes in the way the state calculates the poverty rate for the purposes of providing extra funding to poor school districts.

The bottom line in Brockton is that the district faced a $16 million budget deficit during the 2016/2017 school year, which has led to layoffs, sharp increases in class size and the possibility that Brockton will have to close down one of its middle schools.

The key cause of the ballooning deficits is that for the past several years, the Massachusetts foundation budget formula, which was established by MERA 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, has increased by an average of just 2.5 percent a year. During that same period costs—especially those associated with health care and special education—have risen by 3 to 5 percent per year. This has hit poor districts like Brockton particularly hard.

Another problem has been a new charter school foisted on the city by republican Gov. Charlie Baker, Jim Peyser, the Massachusetts Secretary of Education, and other prominent education-reformers against widespread local opposition, which has cost the city $4 million per year so far in lost funding. That number is expected to balloon to $10 million per year in lost revenues as the charter school is allowed to nearly double in size to 735 students during the next few years.

(Readers of this blog may recall that, in November 2016, Baker and other education reformers backed Question 2, the most expensive charter-school ballot initiative in the country, which was aimed at effectively lifting the cap on charter schools—an effort that voters resoundingly rejected by a 62-to-38 margin. Peyser helped bundle $387,275 donations toward Question 2 and Paul Sagan, a venture capitalist and chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, alone contributed close to $600,000, most of that in dark-money. Then, last year, the largest out-of-state backer of Question 2 was slapped with a $426,466 fine for violating campaign finance laws—the biggest such violation in state history.)

Yet another major concern for Brockton is that the state has changed the way it measures poverty, which led to a drastic under-counting of undocumented immigrants—of which Brockton has large numbers. In Massachusetts, schools receive $2,400 extra funding from the state for each poor child they enroll; that’s in addition to about a $6,000 base budget. (Schools also receive extra funds for English Language Learners and special-needs students, among others.)  Historically, for school-funding purposes, poverty was measured by the percentage of students who receive free- and reduced-price lunch. About four yeas ago, the federal government, introduced the so-called Community Eligibility Program (CEP) as an option for schools in districts like Brockton with high concentrations of poor students, making all students in those schools automatically eligible to receive free meals. This approach eliminated “the cost and administrative burden of collecting and processing family applications” at each school and increased the number of students participating in school nutrition programs.

But, once the CEP program was in place, the state began to use data on the number of families already enrolled in its poverty programs, such as food stamps or welfare, to calculate the subsidy schools would receive for their poor students. While that measure worked in most towns and municipalities, it proved devastating for about 5 percent of the state’s urban districts with high numbers of undocumented students, says Petronio.

Immigrants are “not eligible for food stamps or welfare until they’ve been here for five years,” explains Petronio, noting that “through the free-lunch applications you’d pick up” those children. Moreover, under the Trump administration’s campaign against undocumented immigrants, Brockton’s large population of immigrants from Haiti and Cape Verde became especially fearful of registering for state poverty programs. Thus, in Brockton, a district with about 17,000 students where a total of about 14,000 had been eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch in the 2015/2016 school year, over 4,000 children have since been dropped from the rolls. As those students disappeared from the official school-poverty statistics, the district lost an estimated $6 million.

Now, Baker’s most recent school budget has stripped $200 per student from the subsidy schools receive for poor children, which again will hit towns like Brockton hardest.

Unless the state legislature acts to increase funding—or unless Brockton and other poor urban districts sue the state, forcing it to meet its constitutional obligation to provide “adequate funding” for all children—Brockton’s budget problems will only get worse, and are likely to take a toll on its academic programs.

Twenty-five years ago, the state’s remarkable reforms—a bipartisan grand bargain that boosted spending in exchange for increased accountability—helped transform Brockton High, the state’s largest, and one of its then-poorest performing, schools. While Brockton High has continued to maintain relatively strong scores on the MCAS test, a state graduation requirement, its math scores have dipped over the last four years. Its graduation rate also has declined slightly to 87 percent.

The district is now building a coalition with other urban school districts to help defray legal costs, according to Kathleen Smith, the Brockton district superintendent, who says she is also hoping to include interested business people and philanthropists. So far, likely partners include Worcester and Springfield.

The Boston Globe notes that “(l)egislation to update the state funding formula and pump more aid into the public schools, especially the neediest ones, has the support of nearly every state senator” and could forestall a lawsuit. But, so far, Baker has “not indicated he supports” such legislation.

Petronio, meanwhile, points out that to make up for years of under-funding public schools, Massachusetts would need to come up with as much as $1.5 billion, about a third of the state education budget and an amount that would almost inevitably require an increase in the state income tax or sales tax. That’s a conclusion Baker, an anti-tax Republican is unlikely to agree with.

For more on the historic Massachusetts education-reform law, how it turned the Bay State into the gold standard for education, and recent efforts to dismantle the reforms, see my new book After the Education Wars.

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