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The true cost of public education

TODAY the Supreme Judicial Court is scheduled to hear arguments in the school funding case, Hancock v. Driscoll, filed on behalf of students in 19 low-income urban and rural school districts. If the SJC adopts the recommendations of Suffolk Superior Court Judge Margot Botsford, the Commonwealth will be required to conduct a thorough and objective study of how much it would cost to provide children in Massachusetts with the level of education to which they are constitutionally entitled. Those of us who work in public education have no doubt that such a study would highlight the reality that many schools simply do not have the resources they need to meet state learning requirements. This is especially true in communities serving a large number of low-income children.

After hearing testimony over nine months, Botsford issued a report last April in which she concluded that the state education funding formula established in 1993 "does not presently provide sufficient funds" to permit the plaintiff communities to implement state learning standards.

"Despite a number of impressive accomplishments of the Commonwealth and the Department of Education over the past 10 years," Botsford wrote, "the record here establishes that the plaintiff children are not receiving the education to which they are constitutionally entitled."

Evidence submitted during the trial demonstrates why spending levels required over the past decade, though significantly higher than they were before, have fallen short. A key factor is that the funding formula under the Education Reform Act of 1993 was designed several years prior to the establishment of ambitious new state learning standards. Those standards are embodied in "curriculum frameworks" in seven subjects: English language arts, mathematics, history and social science, science and technology/engineering, health, foreign languages, and the arts.

Botsford found gaping holes in what the plaintiff districts were able to offer students toward meeting those standards. For example, she found that the overcrowded, 106-year-old Forest Park Middle School in Springfield has no science or language laboratory and only 12 microscopes. The city's arts program had 31 music teachers and 27 art teachers for more than 26,000 students. The arts were no better off.

"Obviously, the program is not aligned with the state arts curriculum framework," Botsford wrote. "Too many children can go through the Springfield schools never having taken any classes in any of the arts: the district's director of the arts estimates that half of the graduating class of 2003 in Springfield went through K through 12 without any arts instruction at all." Botsford heard many hours of testimony on similar inadequacies in other districts, more than enough to convince her that the problems are significant. And the evidence continues to mount. Just last month the state reported that more than one-third of all districts failed to make "adequate yearly progress" toward meeting MCAS test score goals set by the Department of Education at the direction of the federal government.

This raises a fundamental question of fairness: How can students and schools be held accountable for meeting state educational standards if the Commonwealth has not met its duty to ensure sufficient funding for the task?

Botsford's major recommendation is that the SJC require the state to "ascertain the actual cost" of implementing the Massachusetts curriculum frameworks for all children.

Once the true costs are known, it will be difficult for the state to fail to appropriate the money needed so that schools can provide our students with the varied and rigorous education envisioned in our state standards.

It will be a challenge to meet this duty, but it is a challenge worth embracing in a state that has such a long and proud tradition of recognizing the importance of public education. Our state has set high standards for the nearly one million children who enter our classrooms every day. With a favorable court ruling, Massachusetts may be among the first to take the important step of examining honestly how much it costs to teach all children -- whether rich or poor -- all the academic subjects they are expected to master.

Catherine A. Boudreau is president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. The MTA, the Massachusetts Federation of Teachers, the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, and the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents jointly filed an amicus brief on behalf of the plaintiffs in the Hancock case. 

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