As the new fiscal year approaches and the school year ends, is it time to look at how we, as a city and as a nation, fund education?
Oklahoma's four day school week may seem like a treat to its astoundingly high percentage of four year olds enrolled in preschool, but the guise of an “extended weekend” won’t suffice for most Oklahoman children who have begun seeing their teachers not only in the classroom, but in the streets and in the headlines, as well.
In 1998, Oklahoma became the second state to provide free, universal early education for 4 year olds, and enrollment stands at 74% for publicly funded pre-k, but in other facets of the Oklahoman education system, funding is severely lacking, and nowhere is the insufficiency of the budget more apparent than in the numbers. According to Reuters, over the last 10 years, inflation adjusted per-student funding dropped approximately 28% and for that, and many other reasons, the Oklahoma Teachers Association extended its strike into a second week before coming to a resolution.
West Virginia, Colorado and Arizona are also having their own time in the national spotlight.
There is a school funding issue across the nation. But to what extent? And, as dissatisfaction burgeons into protest elsewhere, what are we doing, and what are we willing to do in Massachusetts, and specifically in Malden to prevent our budgetary issues from devolving into a crisis?
In 2016, the City of Malden’s total expenditure per pupil was $13,887.61. In 2008, the total expenditure per pupil was $12,054.92, which, when adjusted in accordance with inflation rates, is equivalent to $13,898.14. So, funding per student has basically remained the same.
Comparing to other districts throughout the nation, Malden and Massachusetts have fared better than other financially disadvantaged areas, but dismissing the very real issues with current education funding would be a disservice to students, teachers, and administrators alike.
Funding the Visual Arts
The streets of Malden Center are dotted with colorful electric boxes, hand painted, historical reminders of the town’s history and clear windows into a vibrant and involved art department. The Blue and Gold Art Gallery, the muraled walls of Malden High School’s library and art hall, and the student artwork framing the mayor’s office all elicit a similar reckoning: art is quintessential to Malden. It pervades every aspect of student life. Its many iterations, whether it be choral arts, studio arts, digital arts, or band, beckon students because students crave being “intellectually challenged,” a belief Joseph Luongo, who has taught art at both the Linden STEAM Academy and MHS, tells us has guided his educational philosophy.
In Luongo’s experience, there is a discrepancy in funding for art across the district and the state. He reflected by saying he’s “amazed [the art department does] as well as [it does].” At MHS, like many urban districts across the country, art resources are sparse and art teachers are even harder to come across. Malden High has three teachers for nearly 2,000 students.
The prospects of being able to hire another art teacher seem bleak to Mary Ann Seager, another art teacher at MHS, who acknowledges that whenever funds are available, “they are always going to hire another [core subject] teacher, not another art teacher,” in spite of the dedicated, “good service” Malden art teachers commit to providing.
In addition to her hopes for adding new staff, Seager expressed her desire for whoever becomes the new principal to appreciate the presence of art at MHS, because “not every principal values art,” a feeling corroborated by Luongo, who cites former principal Brown as an exemplary leader for the art department because he highly prioritized a “vibrant art department.”
The vibrancy of MHS art is reliant upon the department’s ability to acquire glazes, machinery, kilns, canvases and computers; and while the department has been able to manage in spite of the snug budget, resources throughout the district are far more thinly spread.
In the end, the art department’s ailments derive from the nature of cities’ unforgiving budgets. Grants are not readily available and there aren’t enough donors. Federal help is nearly non-existent and the proposed privatization of education, Luongo stated, is an “arcane system with terrible flaws.” The enactment of state legislation seems improbable, and the general sentiment seems to be that “if [state legislators] had the will [to enact legislation], they would do it.”
While some losses are minimal, Luongo cautions that little things amount to big things, and small losses culminate in “death by 1000 cuts,” a gradual decline a school with such a large student populous in unable to afford.
A Glimpse at the Performing Arts
Erin O’Brien-Mazza, band teacher at MHS, assures that “the MHS band program is more than sufficiently funded” and that the budget designated to the program fulfills its need for “working instruments, sheet music, and an array of instrumentation” comfortably. Still, the discrepancy among the district’s schools remains glaring and Mazza “believe[s] there are middle schools in desperate need of new and working equipment and sheet music.”
An investment in middle school bands is important for a thriving band at the high school level, she adds, because it “encourages [students] to keep practicing and inspires them to continue with their musical journey” and, in the end, motivated middle and elementary school students become motivated high school students.
MHS also boasts a thriving Play Production program, which puts on three productions a year that captivate the community and garner attention from students, parents, and community leaders.
Prior to Play Production reaching finals for American Land in 2011, the program was not allocated any school funds, but now, the budget covers Musical Royalties, METG membership, and involvement in the Massachusetts Young Playwrights Program. Still, a large portion of Play Pro costs are covered through fundraising and ticket sales which supplement the current budget.
Funding can be insufficient as revenues from ticket sales and sporadic grants “often fail to cover basic costs,” and the Play Production program still needs a better lighting system, “tools, paint, and other essentials.” Productions themselves are also enormous expenses, and past shows, like “Shrek,” have cost up to $15,000.
In spite of this, Walsh has found that Malden “[has] been incredibly responsive when teachers simply ask,” and asking is an advocate’s burden. Walsh calls this the “scarcity mindset,” a perception of lack of funds that inhibits resources from being dispensed. Teachers fear provoking animosity between staff members, fear of getting denied funding for their programs, and simply do not ask.
Walsh encourages teachers to take “a more proactive approach towards advocating for resources” and reassures those procuring funds that “ultimately, all people want to help good work, invest in good people, and do what is right for the children.”
All Hands on Deck: Budgeting the District
The middle schools have definitely borne the brunt of budget cuts in Malden, but just as the high school inherits much of the talent and drive from younger grades, it also inherits growing class sizes and the effects of the shortage of resources. Student representative on the school committee and Malden High Junior, Birukti Tsige, refers to the laying off of middle school librarians, overcrowding of many classes and the termination of the school bus program as indicators of a profound issue that has inevitably transferred to Malden High. “In Malden High, [her] math teachers have calculators that are basically useless for the AP Calc test, paper is constantly in need, especially towards the end of the year” and uses her experience with an AP Calculus class of 37 students and an AP World History class of 30 students as evidence of an undeniable overcrowding issue.
Tsige isn’t allowed to participate in the committee’s executive meetings, nor is she allowed to vote on any rulings, but she’s prepared to listen to students’ concerns and bring them to the Mayor, and she promises that she’ll take advantage of any opportunities she’s given to speak up on behalf of the student body.
That opportunity is likely to come soon, as the school committee prepares to review the budget for the new fiscal year this month.
In Malden, once the budget for the new fiscal years is drafted, it is sent to the city council for revision and approval which can only consist of adding, and not excising, portions of the budget, according to the city’s constitution, a process which should be finalized by July 1st.
The mayor is advised on the budget by the police and fire chiefs, the superintendent of the Malden Public Schools, and the public works office but, ultimately, the mayor's office is responsible for budgeting.
While many teachers, administrators, and families look to local leadership to repair budgetary shortcomings, when all is said and done, city officials defer to the state to allocate funds equitably. The governor’s budget was released in January and is normally approved by the House of Representatives in April, so at the moment, the city is lying in wait, in expectant eagerness to “play the hand that [it is] dealt.”
From a leadership perspective, Mayor Christenson is confident with the city’s demonstrated ability to manage, to play the hand it is dealt, and he reassures students and educators that the budget process starts with education and the school department. Amid layoffs in neighboring municipalities, Malden has been able to retain its staff employment rates and avoid layoffs. He hopes this can continue to be an area of pride for the city saying “since [he has] been mayor, [the city has] always tried to protect and maintain what [it has] today, and that will be the philosophy come the spring.”
Still, even though Malden has retained important programs and avoided teacher layoffs, with the recent influx of students, the amount of students attending the high school has increased by the hundreds over the last decade and student-teacher ratios continue to widen and soar above those of neighboring cities.
In retrospect, Mayor Christenson concedes that the aggregation of English as a Second Language (ESL) students at the Salemwood, which incurred significant concerns about staffing, was ineffective and counterproductive, and revealed that the city will be “undoing what had occurred at the Salemwood effective of next year.”
The State of the State Budget
Mayor Christenson believes “at the city level we’re doing everything that we can” to appropriate funds fairly and is confident that “good things are happening despite the ongoing challenges.” Any foreseeable developments are contingent upon the state reforming its funding process, getting “its act together on modernizing,” which the mayor believes is absolutely imperative to the betterment of Malden’s schools. In his view, the formula used by the state Foundation Budget Review Commission to “spell out inequalities,” which dates to 1993, never anticipated rising rates of healthcare for teachers and the influx of ESL students and special education students.
The formula is outdated and Mayor Christenson suggests “revamping the formula,” in accordance with a proposal the city has already “signed onto,” the Fair Share Amendment, more commonly known as the “Millionaire’s Tax.”
Chapter 70 outlines the provisions for state funding for public schools in Massachusetts and establishes the required local contribution of each municipality to its own public school system. A city’s required local contribution, according to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, is a “measure of how much local tax revenue a town can reasonably raise,” which, as an example, for the 2011 fiscal year was determined by adding 0.3% of the city’s total property tax, which legally cannot exceed 2%, and 1.4% of the income earned by the city’s residents.
Chapter 70 aid fills the gap between local contributions and the foundation budget for each district, and while this allows schools to meet state standards for the funding of their public education, because property tax and supplemental community funding vary from city to city, there is still a vast discrepancy between districts.
Level one schools with lower rates of low-income student enrollment inevitably end up with more funding, but an undeniable phenomena has begun emerging around Malden as its own cohorts, Level 3 schools with similar demographics, are surpassing Malden considerably with smaller student to teacher ratios, a critical factor in assessing the quality of education in a particular district or school.
The Fair Share Amendment (FSA), which, pending a ruling on a legal challenge, will be on the 2018 ballot, aims at leveling some of these discrepancies. Malden has supported the amendment locally and at the state level, with Senator Jason Lewis and Representative Steve Ultrino as staunch proponents of its enaction. At two constitutional conventions in 2015 and 2016, FSA passed with “overwhelming support,” reports Madeline McGill, who works with Raise Up Massachusetts, FSA’s parent organization, on the amendment’s field campaigns.
The amendment proposes an added 4% tax on all Massachusetts residents earning more than one million dollars a year and is intended to “help alleviate critical under-investment in public education and transportation in Massachusetts,” and McGill urges students, whose futures are directly jeopardized by under-funding, to volunteer with Raise Up MA’s phone program, canvassing program, or summer fellowship.
Raise Up MA will also be holding a rally at the State House on May 8th at 1:00 pm on the Grand Staircase. By then, the Oklahoma teachers’ strike may end. But from the recesses of small Oklahoma towns to the bustling streets of Boston, the urgency and longing for reform are unchanging and personal responsibility seems to propell citizens towards action, even when the government fails to act.
At the end of the day, budgeting is a burden for all to bear, including community leaders, teachers, administrators, parents, and students.
It is incumbent upon the state, which has recently made changes to Chapter 70 funding, to enable positive change which trickles down to cities and communities. Those involved in making budgetary decisions like city leaders and administrators should create pathways to engage teachers and students in honest discussions about programming and resources. Lastly, teachers must not refrain from advocating for their programs and for their students out of fear of rejection. Budgeting woes cannot possibly be resolved without the cooperation of all of those involved in budgeting and affected by budgeting.
Successful school funding starts with broadening the budget, then engaging all on allocating and advocating for funds.