Our Opinion: It's time for a lesson in school funding

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All right, class ... Stop yelling, settle down and listen to today's lesson, which is deceptively simple: If you're upset with the state of your schools, don't blame your local school committees. They have to make do with the resources they're given, and they're just trying to hold everything together with chewing gum and baling wire.

Massachusetts residents like to point with pride to their state public school system, which repeatedly ranks as best among the 50 states. There's always room for improvement, however, as local school officials, teachers, parents and students are quick to point out.

Certainly, the will for excellence is present in the Bay State, but as with so many other state services, it boils down to how much residents are willing to tax themselves and divide the proceeds equitably among the people and localities in the commonwealth. Such policy — proportional distribution of revenue according to need — is the heart of progressivism.

At a forum on Monday sponsored by the Massachusetts Association of School Committees at Lee Middle and High Schools (Eagle, Thursday), local school officials and members of the state legislative delegation met to discuss the woeful inadequacy of the infamous state Foundation Budget, based upon a 25-year-old formula that was designed to smooth out some of the funding disparities between prosperous school districts with robust tax bases and schools like those in the Berkshires, where relatively poor, sparsely populated rural districts find themselves falling ever further behind.

At the forum, a common villain emerged — the state Legislature. Even members of the Berkshires legislative delegation expressed frustration with the state's governing body, which hamstrung itself last summer while attempting to update the Foundation Budget and make it more realistic for the modern era. Such issues as increased health care insurance, special education and instruction for low-income students stymied a deal that would have brought relief, and while state Sen. Adam Hinds was able to get his colleagues to cough up extra money for rural schools, it was a temporary fix rather than a systemic change.

Ultimately, the solution lies in two areas: revenue and allocation — both of which take political courage, and that tends to be in short supply on Beacon Hill. State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli begged for revenue-raising ideas, particularly in light of the failure of the so-called "millionaire's tax," a referendum that was shot down by the Supreme Judicial Court, and that could have brought in an estimated $2 billion for education.

As for allocation, as Mr. Pignatelli ruefully observed, there are 200 members of the Legislature, many of whom need to be convinced that adequate funding means allowing poorer segments of the commonwealth to offer and maintain complete educational opportunities for all students.

So here's a homework assignment for all you malcontents: If you want to complain to someone about the state of your schools, complain to state legislators.

They control the purse strings, and you pay them to tackle tough jobs like properly revamping the Foundation Budget and raising the revenue (from somewhere) to make it effective. But don't complain to the Berkshires delegation — they're already on your side and need your help. Pick a legislator from, say, Newton or Woburn, where the living is easy. Make their life miserable.

Class dismissed.

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