Legislature Votes to Enact the Student Opportunity Act

 Last week, both chambers of the State Legislature unanimously voted to enact the Student Opportunity Act, providing an unprecedented $1.5 billion new investment in Massachusetts K-12 public education system and ensuring public schools have the resources to provide high-quality education to students across the state, regardless of zip code or income level.

The bill now goes to Gov. Charlie Baker for review. If he does sign it, the bill would become law and many of the school funding frustrations recently would become a thing of the past.

Assuming inflation, over the seven-year implementation timeline the bill will provide an estimated $2.2 billion in support of public schools.

The Student Opportunity Act provides significant support to school districts that serve English learners and high concentrations of low-income students. At the same time, all school districts across the Commonwealth will benefit from updates to the existing funding formula, along with increased state investments in vital education aid programs such as special education transportation, school construction and renovation, and the 21st Century Education Program.

“The Student Opportunity Act makes a lasting and profound investment in the Massachusetts public education system and places a special emphasis on English learners and districts serving our low-income students,” said House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo (D-Winthrop). “We’re building on our ongoing efforts to support our neediest students and to close opportunity gaps. I want to thank Chair Peisch for her leadership on this legislation, and Chair Lewis for his hard work, and the conference committee especially Representatives Tucker and Ferguson. This was a collaboration among the House and the Senate, and I appreciate Senate President Spilka’s partnership as we make this historic investment.”

State Rep. Joe McGonagle said restoring education funding for Everett has been a top priority.

“Fully funding Everett’s schools is one of my top priorities,” said McGonagle. “The Student Opportunity Act is a historic piece of legislation that will bring our schools to new heights. This legislation will bring millions of more dollars to fund critical programs for low income and English language learners so that all students have access to high quality education. I am so proud to have been a part of this, and I am especially thankful to Speaker DeLeo, Chair Alice Peisch, the Chair of the Education Committee, and my good friend Rep. Paul Tucker, the Vice Chair of the Education Committee for all the time and effort they put in to getting this bill passed and onto the governor’s desk.”

State Sen. Sal DiDomenico has been on the frontlines of the issue in the Senate for quite some time, and said earlier this fall – after the bill passed the Senate – that historic funding numbers could come to Everett if the bill is passed.

“It’s a once in a generation bill of historic proportions that will undo a wrong we have been committing for many years in the Legislature and as a state,” he said this fall. “We will be in a situation where every child has an opportunity to succeed. I can’t say enough. It’s what we have been waiting for. The day has come.”

The Student Opportunity Act fully implements the recommendations of the 2015 Foundation Budget Review Commission (FBRC) in order to support the “educational programs and services necessary to achieve the Commonwealth’s educational goals” as stated in the Commission’s mission. The bill provides an estimated $1.4 billion in new Chapter 70 aid over and above inflation when fully implemented over the next seven years. The bill modernizes the K-12 education funding and policy landscape in four areas:

•Estimates school districts’ employee and retiree health care costs using up to date health insurance trend data collected by the state’s Group Insurance Commission (GIC).

•Increases special education enrollment and cost assumptions to more accurately reflect district enrollment.

•Increases funding for English learners (EL) and differentiates funding by grade level to reflect the greater resources required to educate our older EL students.

•Addresses the needs of districts educating high concentrations of low-income students by:

*Providing additional funding based on the share of low-income students in each district; districts educating the largest percentage of low-income students will receive an additional increment equal to 100 percent of the base foundation; and

*Returning the definition of low-income to 185 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, as opposed to the 133 percent level used in recent years.

In addition to implementing the FBRC’s recommended formula changes, the Student Opportunity Act provides an additional $100 million in state financial support in several categories to help public schools and communities deliver a high-quality education to every student. Those fiscal supports include:

•Increasing foundation rates for guidance and psychological services in recognition of the growing need for expanded social-emotional support and mental health services;

•Committing to fully funding charter school tuition reimbursement, which provides transitional aid to help districts when studentsleave to attend charter schools, within a three-year timetable;

•Expanding the special education circuit breaker program, which reimburses districts for extraordinary special education costs, to include transportation as well as instructional cost, to be implemented over the next four years; and

•Raising the annual cap on Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) spending for construction and renovation by $200 million (from $600 million to $800 million), enabling more school building projects across the state to be accepted into the MSBA funding pipeline, which reimburses towns and cities for a portion of school building costs.  

In addition to new funding and other supports, the Student Opportunity Act establishes the 21st Century Education Trust Fund to provide districts and schools access to flexible funding to pursue creative approaches to student learning and district improvement.

In order to track and reproduce successful school and district-level programs and policies, the legislation calls on school districts to develop and make publicly available plans for closing opportunity gaps. These plans will include specific goals and metrics to track success. The bill includes language, to ensure that plans consider input from school committees and other stakeholders. In addition, the Secretary of Education will collect and publish data on student preparedness in each district for post-graduate success in college and the workforce. 

Furthermore, the Student Opportunity Act establishes a Data Advisory Commission to help improve the use of data at the state, district, and school levels to inform strategies that strengthen teaching, learning and resource allocation. The bill increases the scope of data collected and moves towards establishing targets for college and career success.

To support ongoing efforts to address education-funding challenges, the legislation also includes the following provisions:

•Establishes a Rural Schools Commission to investigate the unique challenges facing rural and regional school districts with low and declining enrollment and make recommendations for further updates to help impacted districts and communities;

•Directs the Department of Revenue (DOR) and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to analyze the method of determining required local contributions in the Chapter 70 school funding formula for the purpose of improving equity, predictability and accuracy; and

•Requires the Massachusetts School Building Authority to undertake a review of the current program, now in its 15th year, to ensure that capital reimbursements meet district needs. The bill requires the Foundation Budget Review Commission to convene at least every 10 years to review the way foundation budgets are calculated and ensure the school funding formula continues to reflect the needs of school districts across the Commonwealth.

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