Foundation Budget Review Commission Calls for Updating School Funding Formula and For Expanding Learning Time for Low Income Students

It is no secret that, when it comes to education, Massachusetts is a place of firsts. The Commonwealth is home to the first public school in the country, the first system of public education (as designed by Horace Mann), and the state has also ranked first in students’ performance on NAEP (the so-called “nation’s report card”) in fourth and eighth grade reading and math for the last several years. Closer to our Mass 2020/NCTL hearts, Massachusetts is also home to the first-in-the-nation statewide initiative to expand school time in district schools through a competitive grant system.  In its tenth year, the Massachusetts Expanded Learning Time Initiative has been hugely influential in proving that expanded time in school for both students and teachers is a key intervention for preparing students for future success. 

Now, Massachusetts is poised once again to take a highly significant step forward in boosting the efficacy of schools—especially schools serving large portions of low-income students—by providing the resources needed to operate with substantially more time than the conventional school day. The context for this step comes through the recent activity around reforming the state’s “foundation budget,” which is the formula the legislature uses to determine adequate levels of funding for all public schools in the Commonwealth.

Here’s the story. About a year ago, the Massachusetts legislature authorized the formation of the Foundation Budget Review Commission to analyze the assumptions underlying the current formula and to recommend changes to the programs and services necessary to achieve the commonwealth’s educational goals. The legislature took this dramatic step because it had become increasingly obvious that the current cost structures to which school districts are beholden, especially the rising costs of employee health care and educating students with special needs, are no longer sustainable at current funding levels. Simply put, it just costs much more than it did twenty years ago to operate schools and serve all students effectively. In turn, the state’s contribution to school districts has been correspondingly insufficient and needs to be adjusted upwards.

In the course of figuring out how the foundation budget should be re-calculated to reflect these new realities, the members wisely talked to superintendents to try to determine not only the shifting cost structures, but also how these school leaders have prioritized their spending. And, as the spending relates to reforming schools serving high concentrations of students living in high poverty communities, what the Commission found was that there is no panacea. Instead, districts have “pursue[d] several turnaround strategies at once” to bring about meaningful improvements to educational efficacy. And, of course, many of these strategies require additional resources.

Still, even recognizing that school improvement takes a concerted effort from many quarters, the Commission did specifically call out “expanded learning time” to provide more learning opportunities for students and more common planning time for teachers as the first of these core strategies. This conclusion is not guesswork, but based on the demonstrated success of a large number of the state’s over 150 charter and district schools that have substantially more time and have closed achievement gaps.

It is not known exactly how the legislature will translate the Commission’s findings and recommendations into policy and funding levels, but, regardless of the eventual outcomes, the Commission has set the definitive starting point for how the Commonwealth should prioritize its investments in public education. For that reason, we applaud the Foundation Budget Review Commission for recognizing both that schools serving large portions of students living in poverty need additional funding in order to meet their mandate of providing a high-quality education for all students and that these additional resources should sensibly be directed toward effective strategies such as providing more, high quality expanded learning time.

As we’ve made abundantly clear throughout the years, with more time, schools are much more able to target instruction to the needs of individual of students, to engage all students in robust enrichment activities, and to provide teachers the opportunity during the school day to work together to hone their instructional practices. The Commission’s recommendations are key first step in spreading the benefits of expanded time to many more schools in Massachusetts.