Column: Successful School Funding Reform

Last week Governor Charlie Baker signed into law the Student Opportunity Act. The signing ceremony took place at English High School in Boston, the oldest public high school in America, with cheering students, teachers, parents, advocates and lawmakers in attendance.

This landmark legislation, years in the making, recommits our Commonwealth to one of its most fundamental values – that every child deserves access to a high quality public education. Massachusetts will now have the most progressive school funding formula in the nation, designed to meaningfully address the stubborn and troubling opportunity and achievement gaps that persist in our public education system.

As the Senate Chair of the Education Committee, it has been an incredible privilege to help lead this effort. It is also very personal. The issue of providing adequate and equitable state funding to all our local schools and communities was what first motivated me to run for the state legislature a decade ago. I had seen firsthand in my daughter’s elementary school the impact of losing librarians and cuts in art and music and other programs. The first (and only) time I had visited the State House prior to being elected was when I joined other parents on a bus to Beacon Hill to lobby for more school funding. I have worked on this issue ever since, sponsoring the legislation that created the bipartisan Foundation Budget Review Commission and joining with other legislators and advocates to press for reforms to the Chapter 70 school funding formula.

The Student Opportunity Act is the most significant update to how we fund public education in Massachusetts since the Education Reform Act of 1993. It will provide new resources to all public school districts, with a particular focus on ensuring equity in funding for districts that serve the largest numbers of disadvantaged students. The Student Opportunity Act fully implements all the recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission, and also addresses a number of other fiscal challenges facing many school districts, including transportation costs for special education students, charter school tuition reimbursements, and school building renovations.

The Student Opportunity Act also recognizes that more money alone will not close persistent achievement gaps. It is important that these funds are spent wisely by local school districts to ensure that the students who most need help receive the appropriate academic and social services and supports. The legislation requires that every district develop a comprehensive three-year school improvement plan, including clear targets and goals for improvement, evidence-based strategies to close achievement gaps, and extensive parent and community engagement. Each district will then report annually on its progress, and all of this information will be publicly available.

We owe a great debt of gratitude to all the education stakeholders whose voices were instrumental in shaping the Student Opportunity Act and getting it across the finish line: students, parents, teachers, administrators, school committee members, teacher unions, business groups, community groups, social justice advocates, and others.

We have a lot of work ahead of us as we now implement the Student Opportunity Act, but I’m excited that this legislation and the historic level of new funding it will provide to our public schools will make a meaningful difference for students and educators today and for future generations to come.