By Rep. Nika Elugardo
Massachusetts is a national leader on policy firsts. Education justice is no exception. We were the first state to establish education as a right in our Constitution. As with any worthwhile leadership challenge, the struggle to live out the vision is even harder than the act of codifying it.
Today education in Massachusetts is still unequal. Schools across the Commonwealth lack funding for basics, like computers, nurses, libraries, and even books. The school-based opportunity gap is pronounced in districts where poverty or English language learning needs have rapidly expanded. There’s no shortage of education models that work in these districts. The problem is funding. We know this because in 2015 a Commission published a report detailing serious flaws in the way we calculate the funding that the state sends to local districts.
The Commission was called the Foundation Budget Review Commission (FBRC), named after the Foundation Budget formula codified in Chapter 70 of the MA General Laws. This Session, Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, along with two of my House colleagues Representatives Keefe and Vega, filed the Education Promise Act to update the Chapter 70 Formula to reflect FBRC recommendations for funding special needs, health care, English language learning, and teaching students experiencing poverty.
The components of the Promise Act, and a couple of other bills which also aim to address FBRC recommendations, are currently being crafted into a final bill by the Education Committee. Rumor has it there is broad agreement on the updated formula as it pertains to special needs, health care, and ELL. There may be differences in opinion, however, on what fully-funding low-income districts looks like, particularly in places where poverty is structural and pervasive.
Growing up, living with poverty and its impacts was the norm for me and almost everyone I knew. Nevertheless, I went on to go to MIT, Harvard, and BU Law School, and to travel the world doing exhilarating work in the pursuit of justice. I’ve been mentored in community and economic development by incredible leaders in Boston and beyond. I’ve enjoyed a fulfilling career over the last 25 years and am honored to continue that career, serving as a State Rep in one of the most exciting and promising institutions of democracy in the world. This was all made possible because my community fully invested in my education. Not so for many of my peers, who to this day struggle with the same poverty their parents inherited from the generations before them. We have the power to break this cycle of poverty for the next generation.
The Massachusetts Legislature has the opportunity to fully fund public K-12 education. According to Mass Budget Policy Center, a significant proportion of the $1 billion per year funding shortfall results from underfunding in low-income districts. To right this wrong, the research tank estimated that we need to double the rate of per-student funding in the 30 or so districts where the proportion of students experiencing poverty is highest. This estimate is in line with school finance research stretching back several decades.
My childhood background is not typical of a State Rep in Massachusetts, but it should be. Thousands of students across every region of the Commonwealth endure and overcome the same kinds of challenges I did. Not only do they deserve the chance to represent their communities in every sector of society, but we also need their leadership and perspective to solve the intractable challenges we face in this generation. We need today’s students struggling with poverty to lead the helm at the highest levels of tomorrow’s state government, businesses, and academic institutions. Fully funded education bridges the gap from poverty to success to make this possible. The Education Promise Act is the thoughtful and rigorous evaluation-based policy we need to build that bridge.
Nika Elugardo is the state representative for the 15th Suffolk/Norfolk District of Massachusetts