The landmark Student Opportunity Act (SOA) moved closer to final passage when both the Massachusetts House and Senate voted unanimously on November 20 to approve a compromise bill that emerged from a House-Senate conference committee. The conference-committee bill ironed out modest differences between the version of SOA passed by the Senate on Oct. 3 and the version passed by the House on Oct 23. The bill is now on the desk of Governor Charlie Baker, who has ten days from receipt to sign the bill, veto it, or send it back to the Legislature with amendments.
The funding provisions in the conference-committee bill mirror those approved unanimously by both the Senate and House in October. The bill makes 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.
Among the highlights, the SOA:
- Increases Chapter 70 state aid to local school districts by $1.4 billion per year—above inflation—over a seven-year phase-in period.
- 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.
- Fully funds charter tuition reimbursements, which provide transitional aid to help districts when students leave to attend charter schools, within a three-year timetable.
- Increases the annual spending cap for Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) projects by $200 million to $800 million.
The conference-committee bill, like the previous Senate and House versions, requires districts to develop three-year plans outlining how new funds will be spent to address educational disparities. At issue during the conference committee were differences regarding the appropriate balance between state oversight and local decision-making. AFT Massachusetts and coalition allies favored the Senate version, which outlined a stronger role for local parents and educators in the development of plans.
The conference-committee bill struck a compromise on this matter. Under the bill, district plans are to be developed by the superintendent, who must consider input and recommendations from parents, educators in the district, and other relevant community stakeholders. The plans must then be reviewed by the state commissioner of education, who can require districts to amend any plans “deemed not to conform with the requirements” in the bill that spell out what the plans must include.
“We were happy to see that the bill requires district plans to consider input from parents and educators—something we fought for,” said Kontos. “On the state review piece, it’s a satisfactory compromise when you consider the totality of the bill. Still, we will need to remain vigilant and engaged during implementation to ensure that parent and educator voices are respected, and to make sure that new funds are spent on the correct priorities—direct supports and services for students.”
Overall, public school advocates across the state, including AFT MA’s coalition allies, are thrilled that everybody’s hard work over the last three years has resulted in such a strong final product. Upon enactment of the SOA, Massachusetts will likely have the most progressive school funding system in the nation, building on its national reputation as a trailblazer for equity in public education. That’s because the bill directs the lion’s share of resources to communities with the highest concentrations of low-income students.
“The Student Opportunity Act will deliver increased state funding to every district, but the greatest increases, rightfully, will go to low-income districts whose students have the greatest needs,” said Kontos. “That means that students of all backgrounds will finally be able to enjoy the benefits—everything from smaller classes and additional counselors to up-to-date classroom supplies and more art, music, and enrichment –that their peers in wealthier districts take for granted. We hope Governor Baker will sign the bill quickly without any changes.”
The final conference-committee bill passed unanimously by the House and Senate on November 20 can be found at the Legislature’s website: https://malegislature.gov/Bills/191/S2412.