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School funding: A constant shell game

Learn how educators in one urban district fund projects despite budget issues.

5 min read




I’ve been teaching in a low-income, urban school district a few miles north of Boston for over 21 years, and for every one of those 21 years, school funding has been an issue. My district has struggled to find money to employ enough teachers to keep classroom size reasonable, to buy books and other supplies for students, to support co-curricular activities, and to maintain our building infrastructure. This year, however, we faced a devastating cutback when a well-intended political program had unintended negative consequences, and our budget was decimated.

Since 1993, a Massachusetts school’s low income status was based on how many students received free or reduced lunch, as defined by the federal school meals program. This year, a new program by the federal government changed that determination. An “economically disadvantaged” metric replaced the “low income” metric. The intention was to reduce the burden on schools by having families in high poverty areas only submit free and reduced lunch forms every four years, thus cutting the paperwork for school districts by a quarter.

Enrollment in social service programs would now determine whether students were economically disadvantaged. Foster children, or students who received MassHealth or food stamps, or students who lived in public housing would qualify. However, this formula failed to consider the large number of high poverty students who are not enrolled in such programs for a variety of reasons. Immigrants, for example, must live in the country for five years before they are eligible for social services. Some families live with relatives to avoid public assistance. Some parents may not know how to access social services. Mothers escaping abusive situations and living in shelters often avoid assistance programs. And many working families eschew social service programs out of feelings of pride. The negative impact of the new formula on school budgets has been overwhelming. 

“Even when some vocal advocates for students — like superintendents and others — tried to raise their concerns, we were basically told that we were worrying about nothing — that there’d be adjustments to the formula, that we wouldn’t be harmed, and when that didn’t turn out to be the case, despite several attempts to tweak the formula, they basically said ‘there’s nothing that we can do for you,’” said  Dianne Kelly, the superintendent for my distric. ” Thankfully, our legislature, both the House and the Senate, stepped up to help the eight or 10 districts that were significantly impacted by the change,” she added. But it is still not enough.

Despite the fact that the Massachusetts Executive Office of Education found no link among the eight or 10 districts that were significantly impacted by the new qualification guidelines, Kelly stated “it was very obvious to us that the schools were all urban, that they were all gateway cities, they all had large immigrant populations, and they all had large numbers of lower middle class families that were barely getting by, and that’s where we see the trend in the kids that are left out of these formulas.”

The poorest communities are now left scrambling, robbing from Peter to pay Paul, and it is the children who suffer. Poverty is real. Research has shown a direct correlation between poverty and academic performance. Poverty affects every aspect of a child’s life from health to attendance in school, and it has long-term academic (and other) consequences. Teachers who teach in low-income schools face enormous obstacles in helping their students to achieve. Leveling the playing field for low-income students is a constant battle.

So what’s a district to do? To preserve teacher jobs, administrators have looked for other ways to cut expenses and to find grants to help. Despite the fact that some come with “strings, “grants have helped my school avoid massive layoffs by providing, for example, money for professional development. The money my school previously spent on PD can now be used to help maintain staffing levels.

Over the years, teachers at my school have also had to become adept at grant writing. I’ve found grants to fund co-curricular activities, including our Rock Ensemble, Book Club, and Culture Club. We’ve also become well-versed at using classroom funding sites like DonorChoose has been a lifesaver for teachers who teach in high poverty schools, providing everything from books to field trips to guest speakers.

The burden on teachers, however, is crushing, and we can only do so much. The number of children living in poverty in the US is staggering. Data on the amount of money spent on prisons versus the amount of money spent on schools is plentiful. And in some cases, separate and unequal charter school system siphon away much-needed funds from public schools. Helping economically disadvantaged kids is becoming more and more difficult. And now, in Massachusetts, well-intended educational reform has once again hurt poor children.

Nancy Barile is a National Board certified high-school English teacher and an adjunct professor at Emmanuel College.


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