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EXCLUSIVE Guest Column by Senator Pat Jehlen

Does your school have enough money?

That question, stretched across the Commonwealth, was the focus of an important Supreme Judicial Court decision and legislation in 1993,and it’s likely to be the main issue in education that the legislature and the voters will deal with over the next 18 months.

Here’s the bottom line:

Before 1993, some children went to schools that were well funded while others learned in  overcrowded classrooms in poorly maintained buildings and shortages of the basics — even paper.

It all depended on where they lived.

And it’s happening again today.

In the 1980s, some districts were able to spend only half as much per pupil as wealthier ones, despite having much higher tax rates. I joined with teachers’ unions, the League of Women Voters, school committees, and others to organize a court suit for fair school finance. In 1993, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that all children in MA are constitutionally entitled to an adequate education and that the Commonwealth was failing to provide that.

In response, the legislature adopted a "foundation budget,"  a standard for adequacy that included -- for example -- maximum student-teacher ratios, with added weights for low-income students and English language learners.  

In 2015, I was on the Foundation Budget Review Commission, which included representatives of many education organizations as well as legislators. We found that state funding for education was shortchanging children by over a billion dollars, compared to what the foundation assumptions require.   

More than 20 years after the Supreme Judicial Court said our children have a constitutional right to a good public education, we are again failing to meet our obligations.

We started out well. From 1993 to 2000, the state doubled local education aid, increasing it by a billion dollars in a mostly equalizing way. But since then, education funding has been cut, and new aid has been given out in ways that don't respond to the need for equal opportunity.




This has different effects in wealthy and poor communities. Communities with high property values can raise enough from property taxes to offer a good education. Schools educating children with the greatest need have the least adequate funding. In the next chart, on the left are the districts with the highest number of low-income students; they spend at just the level required by the old, outdated foundation budget. On the right, the districts with the fewest low-income students spend far more than required. The average district in the state spends 20% above the old, outdated foundation. Communities recognize that their students need more than the old foundation budget requires, and many have enough property tax capacity to add to the foundation.






The next chart shows the effect of inadequate and unequal funding: schools in low-wealth communities can't spend nearly as much on regular education teachers.  Those students need more resources, not fewer.  (You can learn more about these issues in Cutting Class, a report at, which includes an interactive tool to see how your community compares.)



Source: MassBudget Cutting Class




Why have we retreated from our promise to fund schools adequately and equitably?  Because we prioritized cutting taxes.  The income tax has been cut by over $3 billion a year.



Source for this and next charts: Mass Budget



Besides the income tax cuts, we've also adopted tax breaks for particular businesses.





The other problem, of course, is that health care costs are crowding out other priorities.  Next year, for example, revenues are projected to increase by about a billion dollars; so will health care costs, leaving no room for inflation, pay raises, program improvements or innovations.


Most people don’t realize that we are moving toward being a low-spending state.  We were a high tax state in the 70s, but now we're in the middle of the pack, having cut taxes and spending more than 48 other states. Education isn't the only thing that's been cut; almost everything but health care has lost funding.  Here are a few other examples.






Is this the direction we want our state to keep going in?


We can take a giant step toward restoring fair funding for the education of children in our cities: the “Fair Share Amendment” to the state constitution will be on the ballot in 2018. It would increase revenues nearly $2 billion by adding a 4 percent tax on income over $1 million per year. It would affect about 14,000 taxpayers – those with the highest incomes in the state. They can afford it, and the money would be used for education and transportation infrastructure. If you ride the T, you know we need that, too!


(Thanks to the Mass. Budget and Policy Center,, for most of the charts in this article.  It is the indispensable source for understanding the state budget.)


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