Open Letter from Mayor Curtatone and Superintendent Skipper on Education Reform

Children Counting on All of Us to Push Education Reform

“We do not want to be a state with pockets of excellence. We want excellence to be the norm.”

Two of the highest callings in public service are to provide basic equality and to educate our children. Sadly, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has fallen short on both of those fronts when it comes to education funding. In 2015, the State Legislature formed a Foundation Budget Review Commission that laid bare our shortcomings. The true costs of educating special needs students, English language learners, and low-income students have been overlooked. The rising cost of health insurance benefits also has eaten into education funding. Many lower-income communities find themselves in crisis mode.

The education funding gap between wealthy and poorer communities has been on the rise despite education reform laws from the 1990s designed specifically to prevent this. Again, our state government is fully aware of the problem. It just hasn’t fixed it. That must change.

While the problem is more acute in other communities than Somerville, it still affects us. We have a district where more than 60% of our student population qualifies as being high needs--either as economically disadvantaged, an English language learner (ELL) or requiring some form of special education. These are the exact populations for whom the state education funding formula falls short. That we are better able to weather the storm than other communities does not mean we can afford to be complacent. We are feeling this too.

One of the ways we are impacted is that our high needs population is being undercounted. The state formula for economically disadvantaged children counts only students receiving some other form of financial assistance like public housing or Medicaid. Using that measuring stick, 39.2% of Somerville’s students qualify as economically disadvantaged. Yet in any given year roughly two-thirds of our student population qualifies for free or reduced lunches. Some of that gap is due to our large immigrant population, which receives fewer services. Some of that is also children from working and middle-class families, who aren’t getting other services, but whose families are feeling real financial strain.

“If the proposed Education Promise Act bill were to pass, it would net Somerville an additional $4 million in state education funding.”

We also don’t get full funding for charter school reimbursements and for special education reimbursements. If the state were to fully fund at the level it’s supposed to, and per what the Legislature’s own commission called for, Somerville would be looking at an additional $2 million in funding. If the proposed Education Promise Act bill were to pass, it would net Somerville an additional $4 million in state education funding. That money would help make a real difference in the lives of our most vulnerable student populations—which, again, is the majority of our student population.

The story is the same across the state: the students who need the most help are suffering the most from the lack of proper funding. The performance gap for special education and ELL students has not closed between wealthy and poor districts. In urban districts, state funding for the necessary social-emotional supports for these students is far from sufficient. Districts that can’t fill the gaps themselves can’t hire enough counselors or full-time aides to provide needed in-classroom support. These are children who can thrive if we support them, but the system is failing them. Their chances for success right now are tied to a geography lottery.

Despite the lack of state funding, we’ve been able to step up for these students in Somerville, but there is more we can and would do. This is about delivering the right services to the kids who need them most. Behind all of this, there are real children who are counting on us to deliver.

The call has gone out from elected officials and educators alike for Beacon Hill to rectify these glaring inequities. The numbers of high-needs students must be properly determined and then taken into account in the funding model. Insurance costs must be fully factored in and then adjusted every year. A guaranteed minimum floor for state funding needs to be established so school districts can properly plan and budget. All districts should receive a minimum per pupil increase over existing funding. And the state cannot siphon from other local aid initiatives in order to provide the school funding it, by law, always should have been providing. We do not need to create new inequities while attempting to fix our current ones.

It seems like a fairly straightforward set of proposals, but it has taken years to activate state government on this issue. As usual, the Somerville delegation finds itself leading the charge for progressive statewide reform. It truly is an issue that’s vital to children throughout the Commonwealth. That’s why these principals were unanimously supported by the Metro Mayors Coalition

Finally, let’s not forget that there is a growing gulf in teacher salaries between the haves and the have nots. We do not want to be a state with pockets of excellence. We want excellence to be the norm. We also want all teachers and staff to be paid appropriately. Every day we see the kids the state is shortchanging right in front of us. Anybody who is involved with our educational system knows how critical this issue is, and how imperative it is that we enact immediate reform. It is time for Massachusetts to start keeping the promises it has made to all children.

–Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone and Superintendent Mary Skipper