The fight for K-12 education funding isn’t over yet

Last session, we covered how the MA legislature had been underfunding K-12 public education for decades, and we didn’t mince words. But at the end of 2019, parents, educators, and people all across the state came together in a grassroots movement to demand our Legislature act, and they delivered.  We won a bill promising $1.5 billion in funding signed into law, which was a huge victory for children and families.

But even in the midst of celebrations over the bill’s passage, there were voices raising notes of concern. The bill specified a massive increase in funding, but didn’t specify where the funding would come from. Elected officials said they would make sure the full $1.5B increase was phased in over the next 7 years.

Then came the pandemic, and fears over a possible depression and fiscal crisis. Conservative business groups suggested funding ought to be delayed, and Beacon Hill chose to “level fund” K-12 education, with a small increase for inflation & enrollments.

Yes, you heard that right. During a global pandemic that forced schools into remote learning that brought a host of challenges including a lack of digital access to those students most in need, Massachusetts didn’t increase funding to schools where we know low income, English language learners, and special ed students weren’t getting the funding they needed.

Our legislators will be taking up the budget as soon as next month, but the governor has already made his proposal clear in H.1.  He wants to provide the first 1/7th of the funding promised in 2019 this year. He has said this would “fully fund” the first year, but it’s one year late.

Now that we have a clearer view of the economic situation, and the apocalyptic forecasts have been revised in a more favorable direction, we have an opportunity to act. Tax revenue for the state is up, and there is no need for drastic austerity measures.

If you had a debt that required you to make big payments for 7 years, and you skipped the first payment, and showed up in year two and said you were going to “fully pay” your obligations by paying 1/7th, your landlord, bank or credit card company would laugh at you (and probably sue). But that’s what our Governor is proposing.

The Legislature now has the chance to act and catch up to where we would have been, committing to fully fund education at the level promised in 2019. That would mean 2/7ths of the funding assigned. Our Legislature could do that in the budget coming up next month.

There’s also the possibility of a compromise position: Instead of 1/7th this year, the state could commit to 1/6th, and ensure that the full $1.5B funding increase is completed on time 6 years from now. We’re skeptical of that approach, but if educators, parents, and experts agree that is enough for the challenges our schools are facing, we could get onboard.

But what we can’t accept is that the most vulnerable students in our state, who have waited decades for an increase in funding, be told to wait longer even as costs from the pandemic pile up. As children are being sent back to school all across the state, it’s even more important to provide adequate funding not only to ensure students a quality education, but also to equip schools with the funding needed to make in-person learning safe and compliant with public safety guidelines. Austerity policies are not the answer to an emergency. We need to commit to funding our schools now.