Schools

What you need to know about the milestone education bill unanimously approved by the Legislature

“This bill ensures we always put the students first. We cannot lose sight of that.”

This Jan. 2, 2019 file photo shows the Massachusetts Statehouse in Boston. As health insurance is becoming a key issue in the 2020 presidential contest, new data shows that more than two-thirds of Massachusetts businesses offered health plans to their employees. Elise Amendola / AP Photo

The Massachusetts House and Senate unanimously approved a long-awaited overhaul of the state’s funding formula for public education on Wednesday, with a bill that lays out the infusion of $1.5 billion into school districts over the next seven years. 

The bill, referred to as the Student Opportunity Act, has been hailed by lawmakers and advocates alike for tackling inequity in how funds are directed to districts across the state by requiring more funds for school systems with higher percentages of low-income students and English language learners. 

The bill now heads to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk, where he will have the opportunity to sign the bill, veto it, or send it back to the Legislature for amendments. 

“The Baker-Polito Administration is proud to have worked with lawmakers to increase public school funding by nearly a billion dollars since taking office and supports strong accountability measures to ensure taxpayer dollars go toward helping children succeed in underperforming schools,” the governor’s press secretary, Sarah Finlaw, said in a statement. “The governor will carefully review the final legislation on his desk.”

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Before the vote on the House floor, Rep. Alice Peisch, House Chair of the Joint Committee on Education, hailed the legislation as a “truly bipartisan effort” that “benefitted from the input and support of an unusually large number of people.”

But, she emphasized the bill is only a first step. 

“There is no magical dust to magically transform the dollars this will provide into better outcomes for students,” the Wellesley representative said. “I saw many districts with gaps in achievements spending far in excess of the new foundation we are establishing on a per-pupil basis, yet somehow, the neediest students in those districts got the least.

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“Accountability is not a dirty word,” she said. “It ensures the funding we provide is spent for the benefit of the students intended. This bill ensures we always put the students first. We cannot lose sight of that.”

If it becomes law, each school district would be required to establish targets for “addressing persistent disparities in achievement among student subgroups” and submit an evidence-based plan to the state every three years, illustrating how schools would use additional funding to meet those goals. The plans would have to be submitted by April 1. 

Even districts with fewer “high-needs” students would receive more funding under the bill, according to WBUR. On average those systems would receive 24 percent more, while the state’s most-diverse and mid-to-large-sized districts, like Springfield, Boston, and Everett, would see projected increases of 35 percent or more. 

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Massachusetts has relied on largely the same formula for funding schools since 1993, and in 2015, a state commission found that schools were being underfunded by between $1 and $2 billion. 

Sen. Jason Lewis said the measure put forth in the Student Opportunity Act will “create the most progressive school funding framework” in the country. 

The Student Opportunity Act goes beyond the 2015 recommendations from the Foundation Budget Review Commission, the Winchester Democrat said, by creating calculations for guidance and psychological services in schools, expanding funding for special education, and increasing allocations for school building and construction projects.   

Districts would be required to post their three-year plans for closing achievement gaps publicly, and the state’s secretary of education would be mandated to collect data from districts on student outcomes post-graduation, evaluating their preparedness for the workforce and college. The bill would also establish a special commission to study and make recommendations about the long-term fiscal health of rural school districts in the state that are facing declining student enrollment.

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“This bill is also about more than just the dollar amount— it’s about ensuring that new funding reaches the students who need it the most,” Lewis, a co-chair of the education committee, wrote on Twitter. “The #StudentOpportunityAct ensured that special education students, English learners & those from low-income backgrounds get the help they need.”

According to the State House News Service, the funding would be drawn from existing revenue sources. 

Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Boston Democrat who has been pushing for a change to the funding formula, called the bill a “nation-leading model for education funding equity.”

On the Senate floor before the vote, she urged lawmakers in Washington to “take note” of the model the Bay State was putting forward. 

Sen. Chang-Díaz speaks ahead of UNANIMOUS passage of #FBRC education funding reforms

The Student Opportunity Act just UNANIMOUSLY passed the Massachusetts State Senate — complete with all 5 Foundation Budget Review Commission recs & the full low-income rate. I’m so proud & thankful to stand with my colleagues to deliver our core promise: that zip code will not be destiny in Massachusetts.

Posted by State Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz on Wednesday, November 20, 2019

“It took years of organizing to get here, and I’m enormously thankful to stand alongside people across Massachusetts who made it happen,” she said in a statement

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Advocates cheered the Wednesday passage of the bill. 

“It’s a great day for students and educators in Massachusetts,” the Massachusetts Teachers Association said in a statement.

Tim Nicolette, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, called the approvals in the House and Senate a “giant step” for correcting inequities between wealthy and low-income communities. 

“This legislation ensures a steady, predictable funding pattern that will accurately reflect the costs districts face, and will direct state education funding to the students, schools and communities that need it most,” he said in a statement. “Equally important, the legislation gives the state authority to hold district and charter public schools accountable for how the additional state investment is spent to ensure the funds are used to help close opportunity  gaps and support students with the highest needs.”

New England Patriots players and siblings Devin and Jason McCourty released a statement urging the governor to enact the bill they heralded as a “game changer” for Massachusetts youth. 

“Your signature on this will be legendary,” they wrote. 

https://twitter.com/McCourtyTwins/status/1197293314753605634

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