Late into the night on October 23, the Massachusetts House of Representatives unanimously approved its version of the Student Opportunity Act (SOA), moving the state one step closer to fulfilling its promise of fully and equitably funded public schools for all. The Massachusetts Senate passed its version of SOA on October 3. The two chambers now must work out any remaining differences before sending a final bill to Governor Baker.
“The vote by the House gets us even closer to the finish line,” said AFT MA President Beth Kontos. “This achievement is a result of the sweat, blood and tears given by thousands of AFT members and public school advocates across the state over the last two years. Now we must stay active and vigilant as the two branches move to resolve their differences. We are hopeful this will happen swiftly, so that final legislation can be sent to the governor as soon as possible.”
The House version of SOA mirrors that passed in the Senate when it comes to the key funding provisions. The bill 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.
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.
- Increases the annual spending cap for Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) projects by $200 million to $800 million.
Both the House and Senate versions of SOA require districts to develop three-year plans outlining how new funds will be spent to address educational disparities, but differences remain over the state’s authority to review and amend plans.
The Senate language says that the state commissioner of education can only recommend plan changes, except for districts that have schools designated as “underperforming,” in which case the commissioner has a stronger hand to shape district plans consistent with existing law. The Senate language also explicitly states that the plan review process cannot be used to withhold state aid from districts.
In contrast, the House language gives the commissioner more authority to require changes to district plans under certain circumstances and is silent on whether the state could attempt to withhold funds from districts that don’t comply with state directives.
It should be noted that, regardless of what the final language ends up being, the commissioner of education already has significant tools at his disposal to monitor schools and ensure accountability, including placing schools into “underperforming/turnaround” status or even receivership. Neither the Senate nor House version of SOA changes that existing apparatus.
“We understand the need to strike an appropriate balance between state oversight and local control, and we believe the Senate language does that well, affirming that local parents and educators know best what their students need while ensuring that certain guardrails are in place,” said Kontos. “House members had a different take on the issue, tilting their bill towards a stronger regulatory role for the state, which seems excessive given the accountability mechanisms already in place. While the Senate language is superior in our eyes, we believe that these differences are bridgeable, and that legislators working in good faith can quickly come to consensus.”
These differences aside, public school advocates are excited over the work accomplished by both the Senate and House. If the SOA is enacted, 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 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. That means that students of all backgrounds will finally be able to enjoy the benefits—such as smaller classes, more art and music and enrichment, and up-to-date classroom supplies and technology—that their more advantaged peers take for granted. It’s time to get this done!”
The final bill passed by the House, incorporating approved amendments, can be found at the Legislature’s website: https://malegislature.gov/Bills/191/H4145.