Rep. Stanley’s Education Reform Recommendations 2017-2018

Raising the cap on charter schools has dominated discussion over the past several years, culminating in Question 2 on the 2016 statewide ballot.  Results aside, what we should be taking away from the heated debate over Question 2, is that an overwhelming majority of Massachusetts voters consider public education to be an extremely important issue.  Most, if not all, public school parents want their children to receive the highest quality education possible and want their respective school districts to be given the proper tools and resources to provide this.  With the start of the 2017-2018 legislative session quickly approaching, I offer several proposals that will help close the achievement gap and allow public schools to focus more of their attention on education.

In November 2015, the Foundation Budget Review Commission released a report highlighting the need to update the method the state calculates the per pupil cost of delivering education.  The Commission discovered that the foundation budget significantly underestimates the cost of educating students by at least $1 billion per year.  Included in the Commission’s recommendations were increasing the rates paid to districts for special education students and for English Language Learners (ELL) as well as providing a new tiered support for districts with high concentration of poverty, and aligning health insurance costs and inflation rates to Group Insurance Commission (GIC) numbers.

Over 20 years has passed since the foundation budget was reviewed.  We cannot wait another 20 years before reviewing it again.  Making the Foundation Budget Review Commission a permanent entity will ensure that Ch.70 will keep up with the times and reflects the true cost of educating Commonwealth students.  Current state budget constraints will most likely prevent full adoption of the Commission’s recommendations, but a phase-in of the changes along with targeting school districts in dire need is feasible and should be explored further.

Both of the school systems in my district have experienced unique challenges to providing proper financial resources to adequately support public education during the last decade.

Waltham Public Schools are at or above capacity after experiencing an unforeseen surge in ELL enrollment over the past several years, a 60% increase since 2011-12.  Many of these ELL students are classified as students with interrupted education (SIFE) and students with limited or interrupted formal education (SLIFE).  These students are often refugees from war-torn regions with little to no formal education and require staff-intensive interventions to close the serious gaps in learning in such a short amount of time.  The increase in ELL students has put a strain on WPS’s already-limited resources. Waltham is certainly not the only school district in the Commonwealth facing this situation.  School districts need to be given the proper resources in order to deliver a first-rate education to ELL, SIFE and SLIFE students.  The Commission’s findings on ELL rates hold merit and should be a point of focus for education reform over the next two years.

Lincoln Public Schools

Since the 1950’s, Hanscom Airforce Base has encompassed close to 400 acres of land within Lincoln’s municipal boundary.   The Base is considered a “federal enclave” meaning no municipal real estate taxes can be assessed on any of the Base’s property.  The federal government owns the on-Base prek-8 school buildings, but contracts with Lincoln to operate these schools.  Lincoln is paid a fixed amount based on the enrollment of the children of active-military and DOD families.

Ten years ago, the federal government decided to privatize housing at Hanscom.  A private company now leases approximately 730 housing units, most of which is occupied by the families of active-military personnel and civilian employees of the Department of Defense.  However, close to 4.5% of this housing is leased to retired-military families.  Despite not receiving any federal or state aid to provide education to these students, the Town is educating them in the on-Base preK-8 school.   These numbers are only projected to keep growing and will be unsustainable in the near future.  Lincoln will also be required by state law to educate non-active retiree high school students who, up until this year, had been attending Bedford High School through a previous arrangement between the federal government and the Town of Bedford.  These students are now scheduled to attend Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School, located in Sudbury, MA, in the Fall of 2017.  Lincoln will be assessed by Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School for each student, just as the Town is assessed for all Lincoln residents who attend the high school.

Hanscom Airforce Base is a significant generator of jobs and economic activity for the Commonwealth.  The Town of Lincoln has long been a supporter of the Base and its mission.  However, the educational expenses of non-active retiree children are a big burden for a small municipality with limited resources. The town should not be expected to operate under this unique unfunded mandate.

Another area ripe for reform relates to state mandates on public school districts.  Anytime I meet with my Superintendents, the topic of mandates repeatedly comes up.  A top-down review of all state mandates is warranted and should be included in a larger education reform package.  DESE or an education mandate task force should develop recommendations on how best to streamline, consolidate, or eliminate outdated or duplicative mandates as well as instituting a moratorium on all new mandates until a task force reviews existing ones.  While some state mandates are necessary for compliance of federal laws or for public safety, many are onerous and are often unfunded by the state, requiring local school districts to come up with the funds for implementation.  Our school districts should be focusing on what’s most important, educating students, not complying with burdensome mandates.

Massachusetts is blessed to annually rank as one of the top states in the country for public education.  We have a legislature, administration and electorate that is passionate about education and wants to see our students achieve success in K-12 and beyond.  These proposals give school districts the necessary resources and tools that reflect the true cost of education in the 21st century to address abrupt changes in student demographics, and allow school districts to concentrate on education, not administration.