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Reform, revenue both needed in education funding formula

July 15, 2019

Reading, writing, and arithmetic are the three Rs most of us remember from our grade school days – the foundation of our education. As the governor and Legislature revisit the state’s education funding formula, a different set of three Rs should guide the policy approach: revenue, reform, and results.

The state has seen significant improvements in student achievement since passage of the Education Reform Act of 1993, legislation the business community enthusiastically supported and had a major role in developing. However, we have not closed racial and socio-economic achievement gaps and our education system isn’t preparing students with foundational and applied skills needed for workforce success. This prevents far too many students from fully participating in, and realizing the benefits of, a booming economy. All the while, an exceptionally tight job market leaves employers struggling to fill open positions. Put simply, neither students nor businesses can afford this inequity.

Our public education system, as good as it is, isn’t serving all students equally. Only 45 percent of all 9th graders in Massachusetts go on to earn a college degree or certificate within six years of graduation, and only 20 percent of English language learners and 23 percent of low-income students do so.

Our public education system, as good as it is, isn’t serving all students equally. Only 45 percent of all 9th graders in Massachusetts go on to earn a college degree or certificate within six years of graduation, and only 20 percent of English language learners and 23 percent of low-income students do so. Compare this to estimates that 72 percent of jobs in the Commonwealth will require a career certificate or college degree by 2020. We’re not educating a homegrown talent pipeline and we’re leaving too many students on the economic sidelines. These trends threaten the overall economic health of the Commonwealth.

Addressing this urgent challenge requires a fresh look at the three Rs. With respect to revenue, it is clear that more money is needed to address the rising costs of health care and special education, as well as to better meet the needs of students from low-income backgrounds and English language learners.

Yet, money without reform will not bring about the significant improvement in results that is needed. We’re not proposing a new round of state-imposed top-down accountability measures, which we believe are unlikely to incentivize or support the types of changes needed to better serve students. However, we believe several components must be part of a results-oriented education reform package.

First, the state should adopt aggressive targets, both statewide and at the district level, for closing achievement gaps. As part of this effort, school districts should be required to create and publicize plans for how their budgets align to these goals, and should report annually on progress toward equity goals.

Second, the state should incentivize participation in early college and career pathway programs, through reimbursement via the foundation budget, as the governor has proposed. The Legislature should do the same by adopting this change and promoting ways to increase student access to work-based learning opportunities and the awarding of industry-recognized credentials to students while in school.

Third, the state should increase transparency with respect to student outcomes once they leave the school system. This includes collecting and reporting data such as college completion rates and labor market outcomes, such as employment and post-graduation wage rates. As shown by the Boston Globe’s recent reporting on the struggles of Boston high school valedictorians, too many students graduate high school only to find they do not have the tools for college and career success. We cannot address this problem if we do not measure it.

Lastly, we need to empower educators by creating a pool of separate, flexible funding for innovation and implementation of best practices. We also need to pass empowerment zone legislation that allows a group of schools within a district flexibility to make their own decisions about staffing, budget, curriculum, professional development, and student services.

We know that a quality education opens up a world of opportunities. A great education stimulates curiosity, expands ways of thinking, and exposes students to diverse ideas, experiences, and people. Businesses tell us that the types of skills a great education builds – creativity, problem solving, open-mindedness and teamwork – are the types of skills they most need. Getting better results for our students is both an urgent social-justice challenge and an urgent economic challenge. Doing so requires both revenue and reform.

James E. Rooney is president and CEO of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. Edward Lambert, Jr. is executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education.

Read this story at Commonwealth Magazine.