Rep. Benson Votes to Enact Student Opportunity Act

The historic legislation invests $1.5 billion in public schools, updates statewide education policy, and supports effective approaches to address student opportunity gaps

(BOSTON) – On Wednesday, Representative Jennifer Benson (D-Lunenburg) along with her colleagues in both chambers of the Massachusetts Legislature, unanimously voted to enact the Student Opportunity Act. This legislation provides an unprecedented $1.5 billion in new investment in Massachusetts’ K-12 public education system, and ensures public schools have the 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. All school districts in the Commonwealth will benefit from updates to the 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 Program.

“The Student Opportunity Act makes a lasting and profound investment in the Massachusetts public education system and places a special emphasis on English learners and districts serving our low-income students,” said House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo (D-Winthrop). “We’re building on our ongoing efforts to support our neediest students and to close opportunity gaps. I want to thank Chair Peisch for her leadership on this legislation, and Chair Lewis for his hard work, and the conference committee especially Representatives Tucker and Ferguson. This was a collaboration among the House and the Senate, and I appreciate Senate President Spilka’s partnership as we make this historic investment.”

“This historic legislation will ensure that every student in Massachusetts has access to a high-quality public education,” said Representative Benson. “I began my career in public service over 15 years ago as a member of the Lunenburg School Committee, and I was extraordinarily proud to cast my vote for this once-in-a-generation education equity bill.”

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 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, 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 (to a total of $800 million).

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.

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.

To support 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 the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (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 FBRC 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 signature.