Landmark Education Legislation Released from Committee!

Benjamin Franklin once said, “an investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” And his words of wisdom have rung true through the ages. Studies uniformly demonstrate that few investments yield more benefits to an individual, and to society as a whole, than an investment in education. Now, after careful study and years of effort, the Massachusetts Legislature is poised for a once-in-a-generation effort to make transformational investments in our K-12 public education system through the Student Opportunity Act.

To grasp the importance of this pending education legislation, it helps to understand the historical context of K-12 school funding here in the Commonwealth. Over a quarter-century ago in 1993, recognizing that the state was not keeping pace with the needs of its communities, Massachusetts implemented the Education Reform Act that established the “foundation budget.”  The foundation budget is a formula that calculates how much funding each district across the state needs to provide adequate and sufficient educational services for students. Then, a calculation is undertaken to understand how much each city or town is required to make by way of their “local contribution,” with municipalities in more well-off parts the state required to make a larger local contribution. Initially, state lawmakers intended to update the foundation budget over time as the need for funding continued to increase due to inflation. However, over time, it became increasingly clear that the foundation budget had developed structural flaws that were shortchanging school districts, particularly those in low-income areas.  

As a consequence, working with education advocates, I helped push successfully for legislation to create the Foundation Budget Review Commission (the Commission).  As the name implies, the Commission was tasked with doing a comprehensive review of the foundation budget to better understand the growing gaps in education funding provided by the state. Here is a link to that study.  From the results, the Commission that determined Massachusetts public schools were underfunded by an estimated $1 to $2 billion annually. The four (4) key factors that caused the foundation budget to fail to meet the actual needs of our school districts are the costs of: 1) health care; 2) special education; 3) educating English language learners (ELL); and 4) meeting the financial needs of schools districts in low-income parts of the state.

When we think about the vast amount of school districts that were struggling prior to this study, it is simply unacceptable that here in Massachusetts – a relatively affluent state and one known for its high quality of education – a significant number of public schools do not have the funds they need to adequately educate all of their students. Currently, on average, communities are spending about 30% more than the original foundation budget projections to operate schools in their districts. Following the findings of the Commission in 2015, the commission provided four principal recommendations to state lawmakers: 1) adjust the projected costs of employee healthcare to rising costs statewide; 2) increase the assumed in-district special education enrollment rate from 3.75% to 4% which would increase the percentage of students receiving special education services; 3) adjust the calculation formula used for English language learners by including additional funds on top of the base rate for each student; and 4) increase funding for districts with high concentrations of low-income students. The study indicates that low-income and English learners require more resources.

When the Legislature entered the current session, we knew it was essential that we take up this broader education reform. There were several bills filed this January intended to implement the recommendations of the Commission which I strongly supported. Several of you reached out to my office in support of these bills over the past few months. Thank you for your advocacy! A few weeks ago, after careful analysis of the proposed bills on this topic, the Education Committee released the Student Opportunity Act, which addresses the four recommendations of the Commission.

As to the main recommendations of the Commission, I offer a little more detail below.  On health care costs, the data indicates that health insurance costs nationwide have increased significantly, far more the rate of inflation used to calculate the initial foundation budget spending on employee health insurance. The legislation, therefore, provides an increase in funding to reflect the average Group Insurance Commission (GIC) rate. Critically, it will also include the costs of retiree employee health insurance in the foundation budget.

As to special education costs, legislators agree that additional funding for special education services is essential and necessary. The Commission’s report highlights that statewide, 16% of students receive some level of in-district special education services. However, the original foundation budget indicates that 15% of students receive in-district special education services. The Commission recommended that the Legislature increase the assumed spending to reflect that 16% of students receive in-district special education services 25% of the time. However, the original foundation budget allocates far less money for out-of-district special education services, leaving districts with the responsibility of spending additional funds on special education tuition for those out-of-district services and programs. Because the foundation budget understates the number of in-district special education students and the cost of out-of-district special education, the Student Opportunity Act will include the adjustments recommended by the Commission.

The Commission also recommended adjusting the calculation formula used for English language learners (ELL) cost. Massachusetts has already begun implementing the ELL recommendations during the last few budget cycles.  With that good start in place, the Student Opportunity Act continues to advance the work of educating those students for whom English is not their primary language.

Where Massachusetts is really falling short is in the fourth recommendation of the Commission pertaining to low-income/economically disadvantaged students. The Student Opportunity Act will provide low-income school districts with sufficient funding to pursue several improvement strategies that will address a variety of issues and challenges that have negatively impacted those communities. The bill will allow districts that have the largest percentage of low-income students to receive up to 100% of the average state aid. In doing so, the bill will dramatically increase funding to communities with a high percentage of low-income students. By providing these districts with additional funding, we honor what is at least a basic commitment (if not a moral obligation) to students and ensure a better quality of education. This should lead to higher graduation rates and improved student outcomes.

Even more remarkable is that in addition to implementing the Commission’s primary recommendations, the Student Opportunity Act goes well beyond those core findings. By 1) fully funding charter school reimbursements, 2) increasing foundation rates for guidance and psychological services, 3) expanding the special education circuit breaker, and 4) raising the annual cap on the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) spending for school building renovations by 25%, this legislation will contribute significantly in our efforts in providing the highest quality of education to our public schools.

It will also establish the 21st Century Education Trust Fund, which includes grants to narrow achievement gaps among school districts. The five areas targeted by these grants are extending the school day or year, ensuring that students social and emotional needs are met, increasing and improving professional development for staff and teachers, reducing class size for students with the highest educational needs and providing early education services such as full-day kindergarten and full-day Pre-K. The legislation requires school districts to have developed plans intended to close the opportunity gap and to make those plans publicly available.

Over these last years, I have been working with education advocates to call for increased funding for schools. It has been a long effort and a key focus of my service in the Legislature. As a down payment and a victory for education, school funding received a 5.5% increase in the most recent state budget (the FY20 budget), which is the most substantial increase in local school aid in a decade and the biggest year-over-year percentage increase in two decades! In other words, this year’s budget is a remarkable down payment on our reform efforts.

And now the Student Opportunity Act takes the critical and defining next step: addressing the structural problems in school funding. No legislation is perfect and certainly when the bill is debated in the House in coming weeks, I will look to strengthen it. But make no mistake, among the turbulence nationally, this is yet another example of the bold progressive agenda that we are advancing!

As mentioned before, Massachusetts implemented the Education Reform Act in 1993 but did little to maintain and adjust the foundation budget as time progressed. Massachusetts cannot afford ever again to make this same mistake. For now, this bill is a huge accomplishment, and I am particularly pleased that this legislation should help the communities I represent, while also making big increases to communities with the highest concentrations of low-income students across the Commonwealth.  For those of us who care deeply about social justice and equal opportunity, we have much to celebrate in the Student Opportunity Act.

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Phone: 617-722-2263
Mail: State House Room 473B, Boston, MA 02133