Lawmakers worry less aid could follow low-income students
EVERETT >> Pointing to some cities set to receive less education funding than they'd expected, lawmakers voiced concerns with proposed changes to the way low-income students will be calculated next fiscal year.
In Everett — where the Joint Committee on Ways and Means held a hearing Monday on the education-related components of Gov. Charlie Baker's $39.55 billion budget — Sen. Sal DiDomenico said changes in the calculations will result in funding around $2 million below what was expected.
"When you're taking money that's expected to come to these communities, where we need to do more for our kids, not less, it's unfortunate that the communities are seeing a lower number are the communities that need it the most," said DiDomenico, D-Everett, chaired the hearing at his city's high school.
Traditionally, school districts have had determined eligibility for free and reduced-price lunch via forms filled out by parents, though many are now using a "direct identification system" that matches students to the records of human service agencies, Education Secretary James Peyser told the committee. For consistency, the state now is proposing that all districts use direct identification to determine numbers of low-income students, a statistic that affects the level of state aid.
The new methodology results in a reduction in the number of low-income students, so the shift is accompanied by funding formula changes that Peyser said aim to "mitigate some of the swings."
The finance formula that determines how much state aid local school districts receive assigns a weight to low-income students. That factor increases — and continues to rise as a district's poverty concentration increases — in the governor's budget, Peyser said.
"They're not getting a cut. There is no cut at all," Peyser told the News Service. "They're receiving a minimum $20 in additional aid per pupil. In other cases, they're receiving more than that, but not as much as they would have gotten under the old formula."
The new calculation results in lower numbers of low-income students in most districts throughout the state, with some experiencing comparatively deeper decreases, Peyser said. He said Revere, Everett, Chelsea and Lynn are "maybe the top four where they saw pretty significant swings."
In Brockton, the changes led to 6,000 students no longer being counted as low-income, Rep. Claire Cronin said.
"Six thousand low-income students, English language learners, the most vulnerable of all our students, so 6,000 of our students who will be sitting in our school will not be counted," Cronin said. "And just by way of comment, and I know you probably are trying to do your very best ... I would suggest we should be striving for accuracy and not consistency."
In response, Peyser said he believes the new calculations are "probably more accurate, but I don't want to testify to that."
Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester, who testified alongside Peyser, said that his department is "committed to continue to explore this and understand this."
"We're also concerned that some of this may be driven by families who are undocumented and aren't going to show up in the certification process that we're using now," Chester said.
Peyser described the new system as "a workable framework" but said there is "no perfect solution to managing a transition like this." He said he would be interested in working with lawmakers to explore other approaches or tweak the current proposal.
"We don't pretend that we've got the perfect solution," he said. "We're open to further conversation."
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