The legislative session has ended, and our elected representatives at the State House are now in recess having done nothing to fix our underfunded education systems. Both K–12 and higher education in Massachusetts have been unjustifiably underfunded for more than two decades. Two bills in the state legislature—the PROMISE Act (S.238) and the CHERISH Act (S.741/H.586)—would address this underfunding, which disproportionately affects low-income students and students of color. These students face inequities that result in persistent achievement gaps, and fulfilling the state’s financial obligations is a critical step toward addressing those gaps.
The state education funding formula (also known as the “foundation budget”) adopted in 1993 is now severely outdated. According to the Massachusetts Education Equity Partnership, in 2008, high-poverty districts in Massachusetts received 15% more in state and local funds as compared with low-poverty districts, but that shrunk to 9% in 2014. We have been aware of the inequity in our funding formula since 2015, when the state-appointed Foundation Budget Review Commission determined that the costs of educating English learners, students with disabilities, and low-income students, as well as the cost of employee healthcare, were not accurately represented in the formula. Fewer than one-third of Black, Latinx, or low-income students are meeting grade-level ELA expectations in third grade, while more than half of white students are. The PROMISE Act invests $1.41 billion more than our current formula by FY2026 and helps address these gaps by creating a formula that distributes funds more equitably to districts serving high numbers of historically disadvantaged students.
Governor Baker has proposed his own bill (H.70), which would establish the increment for a low-income student between $3,800 and $4,600. The PROMISE Act sets the low-income increment between $3,950 and $7,900. Under state law, districts are reimbursed for funds that follow students to charter schools, but the legislature has not fully funded this reimbursement, meaning more than $100 million in funds were promised but were never received by Boston. Unfortunately, Governor Baker’s bill does not include this missing funding. These key differences result in vastly different scenarios for Boston, which has the state’s highest number of low-income students and students of color. According to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center’s FY2026 projections, adopting Governor Baker’s bill would essentially have no effect on Boston’s state education funding (it would increase by $8,540), while the PROMISE Act would increase state aid to Boston by $91.2 million.
The financial state of our higher education system tells a similar story—in 2014, the Higher Education Finance Commission determined that we have also been insufficiently funding higher education. The CHERISH Act would restore per-pupil funding for Massachusetts public colleges to FY2001 levels, a $500 million annual investment. The CHERISH Act would also provide critical financial relief to students and families by freezing tuition and fees for five years.
Since 2001, in-state tuition has increased by $5,400 across UMass campuses. Massachusetts is currently experiencing the second-fastest growth in student debt in the nation, and the average UMass student graduates with more than $30,000 in debt. This infusion of funds would help address our student debt crisis and serve as an investment in our college-going students, who represent the future workforce and economy of our state—more than 80% of UMass graduates settle in Massachusetts.
The four-year college graduation rate gap between white and Hispanic students puts us at 37th in the nation. Closing the gap requires the funds proposed by the CHERISH Act, and I urge the legislature to additionally invest in need-based scholarships, such as MASSGrant, which used to cover 80% of the cost of public college tuition but now only covers 9%. Districts and colleges have already established their 2019–2020 budgets, and it is imperative that the legislature pass the CHERISH Act this year to ensure that students do not have to endure another underfunded school year.
The PROMISE and CHERISH Acts—common-sense funding bills that will help level the playing field for students across the Commonwealth—are basic first steps to fixing these long-standing problems, and they should have been passed long ago.