An Initial Look at the “Student Opportunity Act”: Bill Makes Historic Investment in Public Schools, Raises Concerns About Potential Loss of Local Control

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On September 19, the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education released an important and long-awaited bill dubbed the “Student Opportunity Act” (SOA). If passed by the Legislature, the bill would implement the recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission (FBRC) and significantly increase state funding for local public schools. 
 
An initial analysis of the legislation finds that it meets most of AFT MA’s education funding goals, mirroring in many ways the funding provisions of the AFT MA-backed Promise Act. That said, there is room for improvement around certain provisions in the bill, and AFT MA will be supporting several amendments as the bill moves through the legislative process.  
 
“The changes to the Foundation Budget formula in this bill are a major victory for students, families, educators, and everyone in Massachusetts who believes that every student should have a high-quality, well-funded public school,” says  AFT Massachusetts President Beth Kontos. “However, we hope that legislators will clarify some troubling provisions in the bill around new accountability measures and also better address the loss of funding to charter schools.” 
 
 
Among the highlights, the SOA bill:  
  • 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 $150 million to $750 million. 
While these are notable achievements, AFT MA has concerns about new accountability requirements in the bill. Provisions in the bill that call for districts to develop local plans explaining how they will spend funds to address educational disparities are fine. However, AFT MA is deeply troubled by language in the bill that could be interpreted as giving the state commissioner of education “veto power” over local plans, including authority over how local dollars are spent. In addition to expanding the state’s authority relative to local communities, this language could result in a whole new bureaucratic apparatus for developing, reviewing, and revising district plans. This would mean lots of red tape and precious education dollars going to central offices instead of classrooms and students.  
 
“Legislators should make it clear that the required plans can’t be overridden by DESE or be used to take money away from students whose schools are struggling, when those are clearly the communities that need the most help,” says Kontos. “Legislators should also ensure that students, families and educators are empowered to design their own local plans based on the unique needs of each district’s students.” 
 
AFT MA is also disappointed that the bill fails to adequately address the problem of public- school districts that lose 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 risk losing all of their state funding to charter schools. The legislation as written wouldn’t sufficiently address this problem. 
 
“Legislators should provide a durable, long-term fix for public school districts that currently lose significant state funding to charter schools,” says Kontos.   
 
In addition to pushing for these changes, AFT MA will monitor the legislative process closely to help ensure that the final legislation benefits every community and that no poison pills are attached, such as provisions that could hurt local control and democratic accountability. AFT MA leaders and members will be actively engaged in this process.  
 
“The funding in the Student Opportunity Act is desperately needed and long overdue,” says Kontos. “Students and our communities deserve this new funding that they have been waiting for decades to see. It’s time to cross the finish line with a final bill we all can be proud of.”