Issues with our education funding formula: Three factors that put our cities, towns and students at an unfair advantage


SELWYN Contributed photo/Trish Crapo


For the Recorder

Published: 06-07-2024 11:14 AM

Our public school system — the backbone of democracy, the great equalizer, the means by which we can level the playing field — is itself unequal, undemocratic, and badly underfunded. Though education is one of the most significant responsibilities of every society, the great majority of public school districts in Massachusetts are underfunded, and as a consequence, losing students, teachers, and hope. We will lose our public education system unless we make significant changes in how we fund our schools. There are steps we can take; the question is, will we take them?

The U.S. has the largest economy in the world and Massachusetts is one of the wealthier states, but in January it was given a very low grade when it comes to distributing that wealth equitably throughout public school districts across the Commonwealth ( A high percentage of the school districts in Massachusetts are underfunded. I will share an overview of the system and some thoughts about how we might do better. Much of what I am sharing here is heavily informed by the research done by Jesus Leyva, and information from the Massachusetts Teacher Association (MTA) and Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE); any errors in this column are mine, not theirs.

Chapter 70, a funding formula for education in Massachusetts, was developed and passed in 1993. It identifies three primary funding sources for public education. The federal government pays between 8% and 10% of the overall education budget, primarily funding programs for children most in need. The remaining funding is largely divided between funding provided by the state (about 41%) and local contributions provided by the towns or cities (roughly 59%). There is some variation in what cities and towns are required to contribute each year based on the wealth of the town, mostly determined through property taxes.

There are relatively few towns across the state wealthy enough to fund their portion of the funding formula. For the other districts, meeting their required contributions is a stretch and a struggle, and for many there is no hope of actually meeting their required targeted contribution. In that case, the state provides some additional funding, but it is never enough to fully fund the schools. This is a problem that has been getting worse for decades.

There was a revision made to the funding formula in 2019 in hopes that it would bring more equity to schools across the state, and for some it has provided some help, but for roughly two-thirds of the more than 300 school districts in the state, they will receive no additional Chapter 70 funds in 2025 due to decreasing enrollment. In any case, the additional funding will not make up for the deficits that have been piling up since around 2000.

Why did those who developed the funding formula set up a system that doesn’t work? Actually, it did work, at first, but then things changed. When the education reform act of 1993 was passed, the money provided by the funding formula came close to meeting the actual cost of education, so towns such as Greenfield could meet their required funding contributions without doing damage to their overall budget. Things began to change shortly after that time, and from approximately 2000 onward, the funding for schools in Greenfield has become increasingly inadequate, and remains so to this day. What changed?

Two of the chief early changes were the introduction of school choice, the policy of allowing families to “choice out” of their home districts and attend school in other districts if there is room, and the introduction of charter schools, which again resulted in children leaving school districts. School funding from the state is largely based on the number of students, and when students leave a district, the state funding goes with them.

It is true that the district the student leaves no longer has to educate them, but there are many fixed costs that are not reduced when the student leaves, such as heating, lighting, maintaining the building, transportation, and paying classroom teachers and instructional assistants, who are there whether the class has 18 or 15 students.

The school has less money to work with once students leave, which means they have to cut back on staff, on programs, on electives, and on other resources for children, which makes the district less able to provide a quality education, which drives more families to look for other educational opportunities for their children, which leads to a further reduction in funds and the death spiral continues. School choice and charters were not really significant factors when the education reform act was passed in 1993, but they are now, and have undermined school funding for many districts.

Another factor is that the money the state budgets for is much less than the actual costs of providing public education. One area this shows up is in providing special education for all eligible students. It is much more expensive to provide the services required by law for students with special needs than the state budget estimates, and that difference comes out of local district funds. Providing services and transportation for students who travel out of district to receive required services is enormously expensive and the state does not come close to meeting that cost. Districts are left to pay the difference with money they don’t have. In addition, costs such as insurance and pensions for teachers are a local responsibility and those costs keep increasing beyond what the state budgets for and are well beyond the means of Greenfield and many other towns.

A third factor is the increasing inequality across our entire society, with more and more individuals, cities and towns unable to afford housing, food, medical care, or to pay for necessary infrastructure such as schools. And while my focus today is on Massachusetts, it is the same story across the country. As communities become poorer, their ability to pay for basic services, including education, is reduced.

This country is wealthy enough to fully fund public education if we decide that it is in our interest to do so; many countries far less wealthy than the U.S. have chosen to fully fund their schools. This raises two questions: why do we continue to underfund our schools and what are we going to do to change this situation? There will be a forum on this topic on June 18, from 6 to 8 p.m. on Zoom to explore this topic and to look at possible actions that will begin to address our crisis in education. You can register for the forum at and join this crucial conversation.

Doug Selwyn taught at K-12 public schools from 1985 until 2000 and then at university as a professor of education until he retired in 2017. He is the chair of the Franklin County Continuing the Political Revolution education task force. You can reach him at