Massachusetts Legislature Votes to Enact the Student Opportunity Act

BOSTON – Yesterday, both chambers of the Massachusetts Legislature unanimously voted to enact the Student Opportunity Act. This legislation, providing an unprecedented $1.5 billion new investment in Massachusetts K-12 public education system, ensures that all public schools have adequate resources to provide high-quality education to students across the state, regardless of zip code or income level.

The Student Opportunity Act provides significant support to school districts that serve English learners and high concentrations of low-income students. At the same time, all school districts across the Commonwealth will benefit from updates to the existing funding formula, along with increased state investments in vital education aid programs such as special education transportation, school construction and renovation, and the 21st Century Education Trust Fund.

“Access to a high-quality public education is a fundamental right for every child, and that’s why the Student Opportunity Act will make an unprecedented $1.5 billion investment in our public schools, ensuring that school districts across the Commonwealth have adequate and equitable resources to provide all students, especially those facing adversity, with a high-quality public education,” said Senator Jason Lewis, Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on Education and a lead architect of the legislation. “I am confident that the Student Opportunity Act will effectively address opportunity and achievement gaps and make a meaningful difference to generations of Massachusetts students.”

The Student Opportunity Act fully implements the recommendations of the 2015 Foundation Budget Review Commission (FBRC) in order to support the “educational programs and services necessary to achieve the Commonwealth’s educational goals” as stated in the Commission’s mission. 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 (GIC).
  • Increases special education enrollment and cost assumptions to more accurately reflect district enrollment.
  • Increases funding for English learners (EL) and differentiates funding by grade level to reflect the greater resources required to educate our older EL students.
  • Addresses the needs of districts educating high concentrations of low-income students 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 percent of the base foundation; and
    • Returning the definition of low-income to 185 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, as opposed to the 133 percent level used in recent years.

In addition to implementing the FBRC’s recommended formula changes, the Student Opportunity Act provides an additional $100 million in 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;
  • Committing 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 the special education circuit breaker program, which reimburses districts for extraordinary special education costs, to include transportation as well as instructional cost, to be implemented over the next four years; and
  • Raising the annual cap on Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) spending for construction and renovation by $200 million (from $600 million to $800 million), enabling more school building 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 supports, 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.

“The Student Opportunity Act is a true game-changer for low-income students and their communities, and we’re delighted to see it approach the finish line. We applaud Senate President Spilka, Speaker DeLeo, Senator Lewis, Representative Peisch, and the other members of the conference committee for their leadership in developing this bill. And we thank the entire Education Committee for delivering the major new school funding our students need, when some were pressuring them to think small,” said AFT Massachusetts President Beth Kontos. “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. 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.”

In order to track and reproduce successful school and district-level programs 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. The bill includes language, to ensure that plans consider input from school committees and other stakeholders. In addition, the Secretary of Education will collect and publish data on student preparedness in each district for post-graduate success in college and the workforce.

“MBAE applauds Representative Peisch, Senator Lewis and House and Senate leadership for coming together to produce a compromise bill that takes direct aim at the urgent challenge of racial and socio-economic achievement gaps,” said Ed Lambert, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education (MBAE). “This legislation prioritizes increased funding for students and communities that need it the most, includes essential guardrails to ensure the money is thoughtfully and strategically deployed, and increases state and district focus on preparing students for college and workforce opportunities.”

Furthermore, 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. The bill increases the scope of data collected and moves towards establishing targets for college and career success.

“We applaud the hard work of Education Committee Chairs Rep. Alice Peisch and Sen. Jason Lewis, and thank all of our elected leaders for their willingness to listen to superintendents, who oversee schools across the Commonwealth” said Tom Scott, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. “Having been a partner in these conversations since the formation of the Foundation Budget Review Commission, we recognize that providing the resources to keep Massachusetts competitive and to re-establish equity across all zip codes is not an easy task. Expanding opportunities for all children is at the heart of district leadership, and we believe that the Student Opportunity Act makes the necessary reforms to ensure that our schools and our students get the resources they need to succeed.”

To support ongoing efforts to address education-funding challenges, the legislation also includes the following provisions:

  • Establishes a Rural Schools Commission to investigate the unique challenges facing rural and regional school districts with low and declining enrollment and make recommendations for further updates to help impacted districts and communities;
  • Directs the Department of Revenue (DOR) and DESE 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
  • Requires the Massachusetts School Building Authority to undertake a review of the current program, now in its fifteenth year, to ensure that capital reimbursements meet district needs.

The bill requires the Foundation Budget Review Commission to convene at least every ten years to review the way foundation budgets are calculated and ensure the school funding formula continues to reflect the needs of school districts across the Commonwealth.

The bill now goes to the governor for his consideration.