Local Government and Politics, News

Lynn officials state their case on school funding at packed State House hearing

BOSTON — Hundreds of people traveled across the state to testify in support of better educational funding at the State House on Friday. Lynn was well-represented.

In a packed Gardner Auditorium in the lower levels of the State House, Superintendent Patrick Tutwiler, Mayor Thomas M. McGee, and Lynn Teachers Union Local 1037 President Sheila O’Neil testified at the Joint Committee on Education public hearing. They each shared their support for updating the school funding formula, which hasn’t been revamped since the landmark Education Reform Act of 1993.

A report shared by the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents (M.A.S.S.) found that, because of the original formula, Lynn Public Schools was underfunded $47.1 million annually.

“We need this funding desperately in Lynn to give our students the education they need and deserve,” said O’Neil. “Our students have less than some of our neighboring communities due to the underfunding.”

The Lynn trio came equipped with shocking statistics to present to the committee of state senators.

In their school system, there is one guidance counselor for every 375 students at the secondary level, which is beyond the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) limit. For every English as a second language (ESL) teacher at the elementary level, there are 50 English language learner (ELL) students.

Fifty percent of Lynn students are economically disadvantaged, according to O’Neil, and class sizes throughout the city are overcrowded with a minimum of 27 students, even at the kindergarten levels. McGee said out of the 16,400 students in Lynn, 2,800 are in need of special education services and 186 need special school placements for individual educational needs.

“If this is true for our students, that education is the only means toward equity, to say that I am worried about meeting my responsibility to provide this critical pathway would be a profound understatement,” said Tutwiler. “This worry is rooted in large measure by a funding formula that undercuts our ability to meet the needs of our students.”

In 1993, Massachusetts passed an education reform bill, establishing a formula to ensure each district had the funding to provide their students with a quality education. Twenty-five years later, most lawmakers agree that the state’s system of funding school districts needs another overhaul.

In 2015, the state’s Foundation Budget Review Commission was established and found wide disparities in school funding between rich and poor districts. The commission reported underfunding to the tune of $1-2 billion a year in three specific funding areas.

The commission found that school employee health insurance costs were exceeding their budget allotment, the formula only accounted for special education funding through an “assumed rate of district enrollment,” rather than an actual account of students in need of the services, and there is an achievement gap for low-income and ELL students.

To resolve the issues of the current formula, the Education PROMISE Act was introduced, with Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz as the lead sponsor. If approved and implemented, the act would account for districts’ health care costs, modernize the ELL and low-income budgeting components, accurately project special education costs, establish a data advisory task force, fix funding glitches and prevent phase-in inequity.

Gov. Charlie Baker is also expected to introduce legislation with his own proposals to combat the issues with the funding formula. If the reform was approved and implemented with Baker’s proposed changes, state aid to schools overall would increase to $3.3 billion by 2026.

Parents, educators, students, and city and town officials from across the commonwealth filled the auditorium. They sported T-shirts with sayings like “Fund our Future,” “Our kids are not entering your school to prison pipeline,” and “Latino and Brown kids deserve education not incarceration.”

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh also testified before the joint committee and said the reform revamp is one of the most important issues this legislation will face for quite some time. He said mayors and town managers across the commonwealth need to work together to find a resolution that puts politics aside and starts meeting the needs of the students and communities.

The loudest cheers from the day-long event came after the testimonies of New England Patriots players Devin and Jason McCourty, Duron Harmon, and Matthew Slater. As members of the Players Coalition, which was established in 2017, the football stars all spoke in favor of the PROMISE Act.

Jason McCourty noted that Massachusetts students of color don’t have the same resources, counselors, or books as their neighbors in communities with predominantly white schools, Harmon said arresting or suspending students of color when they get in trouble is not always the answer, and Slater said students don’t get to choose their families, race, or language and those factors shouldn’t decide the kind of education they receive.

“Failing these kids will be failing ourselves and our country and we are prepared to battle for them,” Devin McCourty said. “The PROMISE Act will help all students get what they need to have an equal chance.”

 

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