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Saving Our Schools

Vivek Rao

With Republicans dominating the State House and Yankee fans pouring in and out of Fenway Park, Massachusetts has hardly been its usual self in recent years, and perhaps the best example is the Commonwealth’s current public education situation. Facing a daunting fiscal crisis, newly inaugurated governor Mitt Romney is determined to slash state funding to public school districts, a move that is sure to retard long-term efforts to equalize school finances.

Throughout his campaign, one of the fundamental pillars of Romney’s platform was a promise to reduce the state deficit while easing tax burdens on wealthy suburbs and their residents. Of course, one of the biggest funding areas is education, and it was only a matter of time before he turned there to look for money.

In an ideal world, Romney would alleviate the budget crunch by proposing a tax hike or by cutting spending in other areas. Aside from the most basic of needs, such as public and individual safety, public education is one of the most fundamental services any government provides to its citizenry, and to strip schools of key funding is a major mistake.

Realistically, though, Romney, much like national counterpart George W. Bush, seems determined to make spending cuts roughly across the board, no doubt trying to facilitate his insatiable desire to lower taxes. However, he will deal poorer school districts, many of whom are urgently trying to raise their educational standards to the level of richer systems, a severe setback.

Prior to 1993, the gaps in school financing between rich and poor towns in the Commonwealth were massive. Then, under the Education Reform Act, the state adopted a new funding formula that allowed it to give low-income communities much needed additional money. Meanwhile, state spending on education has increased from $1.3 billion to $3.2 billion since that formula came into place. The result has been a gradual yet deep-seated improvement of educational quality in poorer school systems.

That process is hardly complete, as evidenced by the disturbingly wide gap between wealthy suburbs and poor inner-city areas in overall scores on the MCAS, the state’s new standardized testing program. But that gap is slowly decreasing, and reducing funding will be a major step backward. Even Romney understands this. In a statement made to The Boston Globe during his campaign, he said, “I support the MCAS test as a requirement for graduation. The MCAS test ensures that students are able to meet the high standards expected of them. The challenge now is in focusing resources on schools where large numbers of students are failing the test.”

Now that he is actually in office, however, Romney seems remarkably reluctant to focus those resources as he once promised. On the surface, his administration will insist that the cuts will be equal across the state. That, however, is not the complete truth. Consider wealthy suburbs such as Newton or Weston. Those towns receive some money from the state, but that money still constitutes a relatively small percentage of their school budget when compared to poor towns like Lawrence, which relies heavily on the Commonwealth.

For some concrete numbers, compare Wellesley and Lawrence. According to most recent estimates, only about 9% of Wellesley’s $38 million school budget comes from the state. On the other end of the spectrum, nearly all of Lawrence’s $110 million budget is state money. Thus, a 5% state education funding cut is equal in name only. It makes much more sense to view it as a 0.45% reduction of Wellesley’s budget and a nearly 5% slashing of Lawrence’s. That kind of gap is fundamentally unequal, and could prove extremely debilitating to the Lawrence public school system.

If Romney is indeed hell-bent on cutting state funding to school systems, let us hope he miraculously -- or more realistically, under pressure from other politicians -- sheds his conservative mindset just long enough to call for higher cuts to wealthier school districts that can tolerate them far more easily. This state was once a pioneer in efforts to raise and equalize public education standards, but to cut funding to financially strapped school districts would be a tragic move. Granted, my proposal is a progressive one, but is that so absurd in an area long considered one of the most Democratic in the nation? Then again, with the recent extension of the Mass Pike to Logan Airport -- a successfully completed construction project in Boston? -- things really are topsy-turvy these days.