By Senator Sal DiDomenico
Residents of Gateway Cities throughout the Commonwealth have probably heard quite a bit about how their schools are facing dire budget gaps due to a change in the way the state counts low-income students. This has been an ongoing issue for over two years now, and I have received many questions from concerned parents and constituents who are confused as to how this problem began and what we can do to remedy the situation.
In 2015, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) began the process of changing how it calculated low-income or “economically disadvantaged” students. The number of economically disadvantaged students plays a key role in the Chapter 70 formula that determines the amount of funding school districts receive from the state.
Previously, parents completed a form to determine whether their child was eligible for free or reduced lunch, and DESE used that information to calculate how many students were considered economically disadvantaged. Now, only students who are registered for social welfare programs like SNAP and Medicaid are categorized as economically disadvantaged. This new methodology from the Baker Administration misses thousands of additional low-income students, because it fails to take into account the economically disadvantaged students who are not accessing social services. These students are often immigrants, homeless children, or students who are simply not enrolled in social programs.
As a result, many of the communities who need the most help from the state are faced with significant financial gaps. My communities of Everett and Chelsea are two of the school districts that have been hit the hardest, and this issue has been at the forefront of my priorities since the counting change was first proposed over two years ago.
As soon as my office was made aware of the situation, we began working directly with DESE to reach a solution. Long before the Governor submitted last year’s budget proposal, my office was leading the charge in the Legislature to reach a compromise with DESE to ensure that all low-income students would be counted by the state. I met personally with administration officials and convened a meeting with several superintendents and DESE at the State House to stress this serious issue. Despite the many assurances we received from them, the promises made by the Administration went unfulfilled, and DESE chose to move forward with their formula change.
In response, as Vice Chair of Senate Ways & Means, I brought the Joint Committee on Ways & Means Education Hearing to Everett High School last year, where I made it clear to Administration officials that their methodology change was crushing our most financially challenged school districts with massive budget cuts and was harming the education of thousands of the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable students. I worked tirelessly last budget cycle to secure additional funding that would hold the negatively impacted municipalities harmless and helped to reach a one-year stopgap that allowed school districts to choose whichever method of counting low-income students worked best for their community.
As a result of this temporary solution, many schools districts were saved from imminent teacher layoffs and cuts to major programs, and we were able to buy ourselves additional time to reach a permanent solution. Over the course of the past year, I have continued to be a staunch advocate for not just Everett and Chelsea, but all of the negatively impacted communities, and I have been fighting to reach a long-term solution that benefits every school district in the Commonwealth. However, even with this additional time, DESE still has not been able to reach a long-term solution.
During this year’s budget process, I have worked with the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents (M.A.S.S.) and the Administration to find another temporary fix to our problem. Ultimately, a compromise was reached with the support of M.A.S.S. and DESE which provided for an additional $12.5 million for the school districts who were harmed by the Administration’s formula change. This will allow us to mitigate some of the damage, but it is by no means a long-term solution. Both the State Senate and House of Representatives included the $12.5 million in our budgets this year. I will be very disappointed if we are once again in this position next fiscal year, and I call on DESE to provide a permanent solution to this problem that their formula change created.
I continue to believe that the answer to this problem is very simple. We should allow communities to choose their preferred method of counting low income students – either by using the original method of self-reporting or by adopting the Administration’s new formula. This is the solution I have been fighting for since the very beginning, and it is the solution that I will continue pursuing until a long-term resolution that adequately funds all of our schools is reached.
This is not a fight that I am willing to give up on. Our teachers and school officials do an incredible job at educating all of their students, regardless of income or background, and it is up to the state to ensure they have the necessary funding to continue doing so. As the father of two boys in the Everett Public Schools, I am not just advocating as a State Senator, but also as a concerned parent. This issue is deeply personal for me, and it is my hope that my constituents and city officials know that I hear their concerns, and I am working every day to ensure that our schools receive the funding they are entitled to and deserve.
Senator Sal DiDomenico represents Everett, Charlestown, Chelsea and parts of Cambridge in the Massachusetts Senate.