By Roberto A. Jiménez Rivera
Long before beginning our home-buying process, my wife Sarah and I decided that we wanted to start our family in a predominantly Latinx community. Thinking of our future children, we wanted to foster a connection to my Puerto Rican heritage, allow them to develop strong Latinx identities, and enable them to become fully fluent in Spanish.
It almost seemed like destiny when we found Chelsea, MA. Close to our jobs, not (yet) gentrified, relatively affordable, and with a public school system that is 86.6% Latinx, Chelsea seemed like an ideal place to raise our future children and develop long-term community relationships. Until we saw the school ratings.
According to GreatSchools.org, Chelsea has one elementary school rated 7 out of 10, but no other school rated above a 5, with Chelsea High School scoring a paltry 2. Conventional wisdom would suggest that if we moved to Chelsea, we’d be dooming our children to a lifetime of bad schools, negating the social mobility that I have achieved, and putting them on a path to financial insecurity.
Luckily, around the same time, I read Professor Jack Schneider’s book Beyond Test Scores. Professor Schneider argues that the way we traditionally measure school quality —predominantly through standardized test scores like the SAT and the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS)— distorts schools’ actual value added. Test scores have a strong positive correlation with family income and parental educational attainment, both of which have deep racial divides, so our current school quality metrics rate whiter, wealthier schools much more highly than less affluent, more diverse schools simply because they are wealthier and whiter. Schneider believes that if we took students from highly rated schools and put them in lower rated schools, they would do just as well, because our current metrics simply show us how much parents have or haven’t prepared their children for school rather than the quality of the education provided by the school. He then developed a new school quality model based on what community members actually want and value from their schools.
Looking at Chelsea through this new lens, many of my fears have dissipated. Chelsea offers most of what we are looking for in a community, so it is a good fit for me and my family.
However, even though I believe my children will thrive in the Chelsea school system, there is one important piece in this new framework that still prevents Chelsea from reaching its fullest potential: the resource gap that stems from disparities in school district budgets. Massachusetts law establishes a minimum amount of spending required for each school district, called the “foundation budget.” Each district’s minimum budget is calculated based on a number of factors such as the number of enrolled students, English Language Learners (ELLs), and students with special needs. At this moment, the State Legislature is discussing ways to revamp the foundation budget formula in order to help close gaps between wealthy and low-income districts. Among the most important proposed changes are updates to the way special education costs are projected and the amounts allocated to low-income and ELL students. These changes would be particularly helpful to low-income districts, especially those with higher populations of Black and Latinx students, such as Chelsea.
As an example, we can compare Chelsea with the nearby town of Lexington:
|Lexington, MA||Chelsea, MA|
|Black and Latinx students||8%||92%|
|English Language Learner (ELL) students||9%||38%|
|Economically disadvantaged students||5%||63%|
|Average single-family home price||$1,150,000||$371,000|
|Property tax rate (per $1,000 of assessed home value)||$14.30||$14.25|
|Education spending required by current state formula||$67m||$87m|
|Actual school spending||$112m||$86m|
|Actual spending / required spending||167%||99%|
|Spending per student||$18,000||$15,000|
Chelsea allocates roughly the minimum required by state law to its schools budget, whereas Lexington, due to its community’s wealth, is able to spend an extra 67% on top of the amount the state requires. The average single-family home price in Lexington is just around $1.1 million, whereas in Chelsea it is only $371,000. Because of this disparity, Lexington is able to raise significantly more tax revenue than Chelsea, even though their property tax rates are roughly the same, and then provide an influx of additional resources to its schools.
Chelsea has a significantly higher-need student population than Lexington. Its proportion of ELLs is 4x higher than Lexington’s, and its proportion of economically disadvantaged students is 13x higher. Serving Chelsea’s higher-need children requires more resources, such as specially-trained teachers, counselors, and therapists, but ultimately, Lexington spends 20% more per student.
Some people doubt whether simply “throwing money at the problem” can solve the achievement gap. But as school funding drops, we see declines in the availability of arts and music programs, extracurricular opportunities, and foreign language courses. Meanwhile, a recent paper from Northwestern economist C. Kirabo Jackson shows how increases in school funding are linked with reduced dropout rates, improved graduation rates, higher wages as adults, and a reduction in the incidence of adult poverty. Many of these positive effects were also more pronounced for children who came from low-income families, who are disproportionately more likely to be children of color. Even if it doesn’t completely close the resource gap, additional funding is a great way to start directly addressing this issue. There are great things happening at Chelsea Public Schools, such as the “Caminos” K-6 bilingual enrichment program and the Early College partnership with Bunker Hill Community College. Imagine, however, how much more they could do if their budget was overflowing like Lexington’s.
No parent should have to worry about their children’s education being under-resourced because they want to be part of a diverse community. Chelsea Public Schools offer pretty much everything that my wife and I value, but as with any district, there is always room for improvement. The problem here is that the state, not the city, is at fault, systemically failing its disproportionately low-income Black and Latinx communities. They must work to close these resource gaps so that children of color in Chelsea and across Massachusetts can have the educational resources to complement the strong cultural values of their communities.
Roberto A. Jiménez Rivera is part of the Aspiring Latino Leaders Fellowship at Latinos for Education. He is interested in issues at the intersection of educational equity and racial justice, particularly those related to college access and inclusion. You can reach him through Twitter or email.