A Giant Step Forward for Equity: Mass. Senate Unanimously Approves Historic School Funding Bill

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Years of tenacious advocacy by students, parents, educators, and local communities paid off when, late into the evening on October 3, the Massachusetts Senate voted 39-0 to approve the landmark Student Opportunity Act (SOA). 
 
The bill now moves to the Massachusetts House of Representatives for consideration. If approved by the full legislature, the SOA would make an extraordinary investment in K-12 public education, delivering an additional $1.5 billion in annual state aid to local public schools, with the bulk of those resources going to the neediest schools and students.   
 
“State Senators deserve an enormous round of applause for passing this transformative reinvestment in our local public schools,” said AFT MA President Beth Kontos. “The Student Opportunity Act is a historic achievement for everyone in Massachusetts who shares our belief that every student should have a high-quality, well-funded public school.”
 
Among the highlights, the SOA:
  • Increases Chapter 70 state aid to local school districts by $1.4 billion per year—over and above inflation—once fully implemented following a seven-year phase-in.
  • Addresses all four major recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission: more resources for educating students who have disabilities, are English learners, and/or are from low-income families; and adequately funding the rising cost of health insurance for staff and retirees.
  • Expands the special education circuit breaker program, which reimburses districts for extraordinary special education costs, to include transportation costs in addition to instructional costs, phased in over four years at an estimated annual cost of $90 million.
  • Increases the annual spending cap for Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) projects by $200 million to $800 million. 
The SOA requires school districts to develop three-year plans outlining how state and local funds will be spent to address educational disparities. Going into the Senate debate, AFT MA and coalition allies expressed concern about language in the bill that could have been interpreted as giving the state commissioner of education the authority to overrule local spending decisions. 
 
Senators responded to that concern through the amendment process, unanimously approving an amendment clarifying that the commissioner can only recommend changes to plans (although the commissioner would have more authority to shape plans in the case of districts with schools designated as “underperforming” under the state’s accountability system). Furthermore, the amendment makes it clear that local plans must be developed with input from parents and educators, and that the state’s plan review process cannot be used to withhold state funds from districts. 
 
“We thank Senators for listening to local communities and responding to concerns about preserving local control,” said Kontos. “We’re excited that the SOA empowers parents, educators, and other stakeholders to have a voice in the development of local plans. If this bill becomes law, it will be critical for local stakeholders to push for plans that spend the new funds on the correct priorities, such as smaller classes, more counselors, more paraprofessionals, up-to-date school supplies, wraparound services, and after-school enrichment activities. This is what our students need to close opportunity gaps, not more testing or administrative bloat.”
 
Another concern expressed by AFT MA prior to the Senate vote was that of public school districts losing significant Chapter 70 state funding to charter schools. The legislature has repeatedly failed to fund the existing charter school reimbursement formula, and districts with large numbers of charter schools can lose a significant share of their state funding to charter schools.
 
The SOA commits to fully funding charter school reimbursements over a three-year period, but there is no mechanism in the bill to guarantee that commitment. Amendments filed to strengthen that commitment failed, meaning that public school advocates must remain vigilant on this issue to ensure that legislators make good on their promise to reimburse districts for lost money.
 
“Whether it’s through the SOA or another bill, legislators should provide a durable, long-term fix for public school districts that currently lose significant state funding to charter schools,” said Kontos.   
 
Overall, however, public school advocates were jubilant over the work accomplished by the Senate. Senator Jason Lewis, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Education and a lead author of the bill, noted during floor debate that, if the SOA is enacted, Massachusetts will likely have the most progressive school funding system in the nation. That’s because the bill directs the lion’s share of the new resources to communities with the highest concentrations of low-income students. 
 
“The Student Opportunity Act would be a real game-changer for low-income students and communities,” said Kontos. “It would deliver increased state funding to every district, but the greatest increases, rightfully, would go to low-income districts whose students have the greatest needs.”
 
Attention now turns to the House of Representatives, which is expected to take up the bill in the coming weeks. AFT MA leaders and members will continue to be actively engaged in the legislative process at every step.
 
“We appreciate all the work the Joint Committee on Education did to develop this bill, and look forward to working with Representative Peisch and Speaker DeLeo to pass it in the House,” said Kontos. “Students and our communities need and deserve this new funding that they have been waiting for decades to see. It’s time to cross the finish line with a final law we all can be proud of.”
 
Note: The final bill passed by the Senate, including approved amendments, can be found at the Legislature’s website: https://malegislature.gov/Bills/191/S2350/BillHistory. 
Amendment 17 is the amendment concerning the development and review of local plans referenced above.