Student Opportunity Act: Good First Result, Could be Better

After the years-long fight for education funding reform, any major increase is preferable to what existed, but Sen. Sal DiDomenico said this week he is disappointed in Gov. Charlie Baker’s State Budget proposal as it relates to the first-round of funding for the seven-year Student Opportunity Act rollout.

Gov. Baker came out with his annual State Budget proposal last week, and while it contains a variety of funding suggestions for programs across state government, nothing was more analyzed than the first round of money from the Student Opportunity Act. The Act was the result of years of fighting, particularly by DiDomenico and other legislators and school officials from urban Gateway communities. It was signed in November, with a promise to roll out $2.1 billion of new funding over seven years.

Last week marked the first test as to whether the governor was real, and DiDomenico said so far he’s grading the effort as a ‘C.’

“I was disappointed to see the low-income numbers not funded at the same percentages as the rest of the items that were addressed, like healthcare, English Learners and Special Education,” he said. “They were supposed to be funded at a consistent and equitable manner over seven years…It is a very tricky thing to exclude the low-income kids when you’re doing a budget. You just don’t do that. The numbers do look good overall. Everett and Chelsea are happy, but they should have been even happier.”

Everett looks to garner somewhere between $12 million and $15 million over last year in additional funding due to the new law. Over seven years, that will equal out to more than $50 million for the district. However, DiDomenico is worried that it isn’t happening as advertised.

The governor’s proposal does fully funds the Student Opportunity Act with a total of $355 million in new spending related to the new legislation. That figure includes $303.5 million in increased Chapter 70 education funding aid to cities and towns, and $23.2 million for additional Charter School reimbursement. There is also $17.3 million in additional support for special education circuit breaker reimbursement. Others provisions include:

•$10 million for the new 21st Century Education Trust Fund.

•$1 million for data support.

“We are offering a budget that balances fiscal responsibility with key investments to support our residents ranging from education reform to the Commonwealth’s transportation system,” said Governor Charlie Baker. “This balanced budget will result in the rainy day fund reaching a historic balance of over $4 billion and includes a new tax credit to support individuals with disabilities seeking employment. Our plan fully funds the first year of the Student Opportunity Act and will make critical investments in the MBTA, our transportation system and workforce development to keep the Commonwealth on track to support our booming economy. We look forward to working with the Legislature in the coming months.”

The problem for DiDomenico is that of the four key points in the new funding, low-income students were not funded at the same percentage. Instead, they were funded at 4 percent, while the other three categories were funded at 14 percent. The state administration has told DiDomenico it is because there are new mechanisms for counting “Economically Disadvantaged” students now. That long-standing counting problem of poor children has now been fixed, but it has become an expensive venture. So, they have countered that by reducing the low-income point of funding.

He said there were around 47,000 kids statewide – likely around 2,500 in Everett – that newly qualify as low-income under the new rules. That amounted to a large expenditure.

“That was going to be a big chunk of money if they funded that and the low-income piece in the budget,” he said. “It’s probably more than they wanted to put in the first year of this implementation.”

He said now that the Budget has been submitted to the legislature, he believes they can adjust the numbers to be more equitable.

“He’s on the right schedule, but how it’s allocated is also important,” he said. “The next step for us is trying to get that 4 percent increase on low-income to be funded at a higher percentage in the House and Senate budgets.”

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