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News Brief: Mass. Senate unanimously passes Student Opportunity Act

By Tuesday, Oct 8, 2019 News

Mass. Senate unanimously passes Student Opportunity Act

Boston — Sen. Adam G. Hinds, D-Pittsfield, announced that, on Thursday, the Massachusetts Senate unanimously passed S.2350, the Student Opportunity Act, an unprecedented $1.5 billion new investment in Massachusetts K-12 public education. The legislation ensures public schools have adequate resources to provide high-quality education to students across the state, regardless of zip code or income level. Assuming inflation, over time, the bill could provide an estimated $2.2 billion.

The Student Opportunity Act significantly helps school districts that serve high concentrations of low-income students. At the same time, school districts across the Commonwealth will benefit from updates to the existing Chapter 70 funding formula, along with increased state investment in other vital education aid programs such as transportation, school construction and renovation and special education. The bill passed 39-0.

Taking into account these new investments, policy updates and the needs of all types of districts, the Student Opportunity Act creates new ways to monitor and measure progress, support effective approaches to closing opportunity gaps, and deliver results for all students.

The Student Opportunity Act fully implements the recommendations of the 2015 Foundation Budget Review Commission, ensuring that the school funding formula provides adequate and equitable funding to all districts across the state. The bill provides an estimated $1.4 billion in new Chapter 70 aid over and above inflation when fully implemented over the next seven years. The bill modernizes the K-12 education funding and policy landscape in four areas:

  • Estimates school districts’ employee and retiree health care costs using up-to-date health insurance trend data collected by the state’s Group Insurance Commission.
  • Increases special education enrollment and cost assumptions to more accurately reflect district enrollment.
  • Increases funding for English learners that is differentiated by grade level to reflect the greater resources required to educate older EL students.
  • Addresses the needs of districts educating high concentrations of students from low-income households by:
  • Providing additional funding based on the share of low-income students in each district; districts educating the largest percentage of low-income students will receive an additional increment equal to 100% of the base foundation;
  • Returning the definition of low-income to 185% of the Federal Poverty Level, as opposed to the 133% level that has been used in recent years.

In addition to implementing the FBRC’s recommended formula changes, the Student Opportunity Act provides additional state financial support in several categories to help public schools and communities deliver a high-quality education to every student. Those fiscal supports include:

  • Increasing foundation rates for guidance and psychological services in recognition of the growing need for expanded social-emotional support and mental health services.
  • A commitment to fully funding charter school tuition reimbursement, which provides transitional aid to help districts when students leave to attend charter schools, within a three-year timetable.
  • Expanding over four years the special education circuit breaker, which reimburses districts for extraordinary special education costs, to include transportation costs in addition to instructional cost.
  • Raising, as the result of a further amendment, the annual cap on Massachusetts School Building Authority spending for construction and renovation by $200 million (from $600 million to 800 million), enabling more projects across the state to be accepted into the MSBA funding pipeline, which reimburses towns and cities for a portion of school building costs.

In addition to new funding and other support, the Student Opportunity Act establishes the 21st Century Education Trust Fund to provide districts and schools access to flexible funding to pursue creative approaches to student learning and district improvement.

In order to track and reproduce successful school and district-level innovations and policies, the legislation calls on school districts to develop and make publicly available plans for closing opportunity gaps. These plans will include specific goals and metrics to track success. In addition, the state secretary of education will collect and publish data on student preparedness in each district for post-graduate success in college and the workforce.

Moreover, the Student Opportunity Act establishes a Data Advisory Commission to help improve the use of data at the state, district and school levels to inform strategies that strengthen teaching, learning and resource allocation.

Following robust debate on the floor, the Senate also adopted several amendments to the Student Opportunity Act related to recovery high schools, MSBA and municipal fiscal challenges related to Chapter 70.

To ensure that education-funding levels remain adequate, effective and equitable, the legislation also includes forward-looking provisions to address additional funding challenges and policy areas. The Student Opportunity Act:

  • Directs the Department of Revenue and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to analyze the method of determining required local contributions in the Chapter 70 school funding formula for the purpose of improving equity, predictability and accuracy; and
  • Establishes a Rural Schools Commission to investigate the unique challenges facing rural and regional school districts with low and declining enrollment. The Commission will make recommendations for further updates to help impacted districts and communities.

Rural and regional school districts with low or declining enrollments

During the debate the Senate voted 38-0 to adopt Hinds’ amendment to strengthen the mission of the Rural Schools Commission. Key changes secured by Hinds’ proposal include:

  • Adding the Rural Policy Advisory Commission, the Executive Office of Education and teachers unions as appointed members of the commission.
  • Ensuring student enrollment decline remains a key issue of consideration.
  • Directs the Commission to review key programs and resources already in place to assist rural school districts, such as the Rural School Aid Grant Program, consider and make recommendations on the creation of a “rurality factor” within the Chapter 70 funding formula, and reference the 2018 DESE report on the fiscal conditions faced by rural schools and the forthcoming December 2019 report from the Special Commission on Student Transportation Efficiencies.

The 2018 DESE report on rural schools was commissioned by a fiscal year ‘18 budget amendment sponsored by Hinds; its findings laid the groundwork for Hinds to use the Senate budget to establish the Rural School Aid grant program in FY’19. To date, two Rural School Grant rounds (in FY’19 and FY’20) have provided a total of $4 million in financial assistance to rural school districts in western and central Massachusetts and on Cape Cod.

Together, Hinds and Rep. Alice Peisch, D-Wellesley, chair the Special Commission on Student Transportation Efficiencies.

The legislation now moves to the House of Representatives for consideration.


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