Massachusetts’ pathway to education excellence must involve equity (Viewpoint)

2/4/2020 – Springfield – Urban League of Springfield’s president & CEO Henry Thomas III (Hoang ‘Leon’ Nguyen / The Republican)

Massachusetts’ pathway to education excellence must involve equity (Viewpoint)

In September, the Massachusetts Education Equity Partnership released a report entitled “There is no Excellence Without Equity: A Path Forward for Education in Massachusetts.” Intended as a “call to action” to state leaders, the report asserts that despite the Bay State’s top ranking in educational achievement, this reputation obscures the large differential in educational achievement for “high needs” students – that is students who are economically disadvantaged, English learners or have disabilities – and students who do not face those barriers.

The report includes recommendations for closing the achievement gap in public education such as putting greater focus on career preparation and readiness, increasing the number of educators of color, ensuring that students who need wraparound or supplemental educational services are identified and served and creating stronger partnerships with families and community resources.

What does a call for educational equity mean for the citizens of Springfield?

As the educator and activist Jonathan Kozol has written, “Equity, after all, does not mean simply equal funding. Equal funding for unequal needs is not equality.” Springfield, like many cities in the state, has “unequal needs” that are not even close to offset by federal Title I or state supplemental funding.

Data from the state Department of Secondary and Elementary Education (DESE) paint the picture. In 2020, per pupil spending by the Springfield Public Schools was $16,932, compared to a state average of $17,575. In the same year, 83.7% of Springfield students were classified as high needs, compared to a 48.7% state average.

In Massachusetts, “high needs” is defined as students who are English learners, have exceptional learning needs and/or are economically disadvantaged. In other words, Springfield’s per pupil spending is lower than the state mean, even though the number of Springfield students with unequal needs – as Kozol phrased it – exceeds the state average by more than 40%.

Recovery from the impact of COVID-19 makes the redress of education inequities even more urgent. The pandemic created a two-year disruption in educational delivery, further exacerbating the inequities between underserved student groups and their peers.

During a period in which online education was the primary vehicle of instruction, high needs students faced more obstacles than other students, for reasons ranging from access to computers and high-speed internet, to the in-person services of education specialists and teaching assistants.

Some urban school districts across the nation reported a greater than 50% rate of chronic absenteeism during the height of the pandemic. In October, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation’s Report Card, released 2022 data showing that scores declined significantly for both fourth- and eighth-graders in math and reading over 2019 test results, with math scores for eighth-graders showing the largest decline ever recorded by the testing agency (nationwide, 38% of eighth-graders scored Below Basic in math, compared to 31% in 2019). Massachusetts was among the states that showed a score decline across all four tests (math and reading for fourth- and eighth-graders).

To address the erosion of pandemic-caused learning progress, the federal government infused billions of dollars in public education, with Massachusetts receiving approximately $3.7 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act and other sources. In addition, the state released $220 million to qualifying school districts in 2020-2021 as the first release of funds under the 2019 Student Opportunity Act, which committed the state to achieving equitably funded public schools within seven years. According to the Springfield Public Schools proposed budget for 2023, that will mean an increase of $850 per student in the next school year.

Although subsequent Student Opportunity Act funding is not a given, and a large portion of the federal COVID relief money was spent to address emergency needs during the height of the pandemic, there is, as Massachusetts Education Equity Partnership panelist Natasha Ushomirsky, state director of the Education Trust, noted upon the release of the report, still “some money on the table” with the promise of more to qualifying districts based on the new state funding formula authorized under the Student Opportunity Act.

To date, underfunded school districts across the state have used this once-in-a-lifetime infusion of money to restore teaching positions and reduce student-teacher ratios caused by previous years of budget deficits. Some have applied funds to expand the range of enrichment opportunities that are taken for granted in more prosperous schools, or to increase the presence of wraparound and mental health services to address the needs children bring to school that interfere with learning.

As the Massachusetts Education Equity Partnership report states, “We are at a pivotal point for the future of education in our state – one of both immense risk and immense opportunity.” With new state leadership on the way, after a national health crisis that both interrupted education and exposed further its inequities, we must all do what we can to point the needle toward sustained opportunity.

Soon we will have the chance to impact state education priorities at the voting booth. We encourage you to take a look at the platforms of candidates on the ballot and decide for yourself who will have the greatest impact on all Springfield students getting the support and preparation they need to become productive citizens.

Vote for the future on Nov. 8!

Henry M. Thomas III is president and CEO of the Urban League of Springfield; Cheryl A. Stanley is vice president of education programming and advocacy for the Urban League of Springfield. The Urban League of Springfield is a partner of the Massachusetts Education Equity Partnership.

Editor’s note: To learn more about the partnership and read the full report, go online to