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.

Rep. Benson Helps Pass Child Health & Wellness Legislation

Rep. Benson co-chaired the conference committee that negotiated the legislation that will provide health insurance to foster children, require insurance companies to keep accurate provider directors, and examine issues of pediatric health care access and quality.

(BOSTON) – This week, Representative Jennifer Benson (D-Lunenburg), along with her colleagues in the House and Senate, passed legislation supporting the health and wellness of children in Commonwealth. This bill aims to better address the complex health and wellness needs specific to the Commonwealth’s 1.4 million children. The effort creates a foundation for better access to services and more data to inform future policy, while supporting a comprehensive approach to children’s health care.

After the House and Senate passed bills with differing language, a conference committee was appointed, led by Representative Benson and Senator Cindy Friedman (D-Arlington), the House and Senate Chairs of the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing. The conference committee filed their report on Monday afternoon, and the legislation was passed and laid before the Governor on Wednesday.

“With this legislation the House continues to build on its session-long focus on child and adolescent wellbeing, and our work will help children across the Commonwealth grow into healthy and productive adults,” said House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo (D – Winthrop).  “This first step in our initiative will begin to develop a comprehensive support system for our most vulnerable children especially for foster children and youth who face behavioral or complex medical issues. I thank Chair Benson, Chair Decker, and Rep. Muratore for their hard work on the conference report, and I appreciate the valuable contributions of Chairs Michlewitz, Gregoire, Cronin, and Vice-Chair Barber. I also want to thank our Senate partners especially Senate President Spilka and Chair Friedman for joining with us to support these policies.”

“I am proud of the efforts of the Legislature this week to expand access to behavioral health services for children in Massachusetts,” said Representative Jennifer Benson, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing. “This bill bridges the gap between our children and the services available to them, and gives parents the information they need to make informed health care decisions. I would like to thank Speaker DeLeo for prioritizing children’s health and wellness, and for his commitment to getting this legislation passed this session. Thank you to my co-chair Sen. Friedman, and the other conferees for working together on this important legislation that is going to benefit so many families in the Commonwealth.”

“There are several barriers to access for children in the Commonwealth who are in need of behavioral health services, and this legislation takes several steps to address them,” said Senator Cindy F. Friedman, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing. “I’m especially proud that this comprehensive bill requires provider network directories to be more transparent and include accurate, up-to-date information to help connect children with the mental health providers that they need. I want to acknowledge Senate President Spilka for putting mental health initiatives at the forefront of our legislative agenda this session as well as sincerely thank Rep. Benson and all of the conferees for their hard work on this issue and their commitment to improving children’s behavioral health services in our state.”

The legislation addresses child wellness in the following eight areas:

  1. Secures healthcare benefits for foster children until the age of 26, giving this vulnerable population access to MassHealth benefits at minimal cost to the Commonwealth. It codifies this policy for Massachusetts in the event of changes at the federal level to the Affordable Care Act.
  2. Requires insurance companies to maintain accurate and accessible provider directories for health plans. The directories must be updated frequently to ensure accurate information. Insurance companies must make the directories user-friendly for individuals with disabilities and limited English proficiency. A task force headed by the Commissioner of Insurance will be established to develop recommendations to ensure the accurate electronic posting of directories.
  3. Creates childhood behavioral health centers of excellence via a pilot program that designates three regional centers to connect families, providers, and educators to services and training opportunities. Requires the Executive Office of Health and Human Services to report on progress and impact after one year of implementation.
  4. Requires the Heath Policy Commission to conduct an analysis of children with medical complexities to review costs and population characteristics of this group in order to develop recommendations about how to serve this unique population.
  5. Establishes a task force to study pediatric behavioral health screening tools.
  6. Creates a special commission to examine the pediatric workforce to address pediatric provider availability and adequacy. The commission would recommend strategies for increasing the pipeline of pediatric providers and expanding access to practicing providers.
  7. Charges a 17-member special commission to review school-based health centers for the purpose of strengthening, improving, and considering ways to replicate best practices across the state.
  8. Creates a special commission chaired by the Child Advocate to review and make recommendations on mandated reporting to improve responses to child abuse and neglect.

Legislature Passes Distracted Driving Bill

(BOSTON) – On Wednesday, Representative Jennifer Benson (D-Lunenburg) joined her colleagues in the Legislature to pass legislation banning drivers from using hand-held electronic devices in vehicles unless they are in hands-free mode.

“We’re proud to have worked with our colleagues in the Senate to make Massachusetts roads safer and save lives by moving this policy forward,” said House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo (D-Winthrop). “I want to thank Chair Straus for his leadership on this issue and Leader Wagner, Chair Michlewitz and my colleagues in the House who worked so diligently to advance this legislation.”

This new distracted driving law is going to make our roads safer and save lives in Massachusetts,” said Representative Benson. “The included provisions on traffic stop data collection will allow us to examine this data annually and detect issues of racial profiling in policing.”

The bill defines hands-free mode as one that engages in voice communication with and receiving audio without touching, holding or otherwise manually manipulating a device. Law enforcement officials will issue warnings to drivers for first offenses of the new law until March 31, 2020. Additionally, this legislation improves transparency in public safety by expanding access to traffic stop data. It has been 15 years since the last public report on traffic stop data; under the new law, the state will publish and analyze the data annually.

The bill also:

  • Allows drivers to use mapping or navigation devices or apps if they are affixed to the windshield, dashboard or central console or integrated into the vehicle and only involve a tap or swipe;
  • Exempts use of electronics in the case of an emergency and for first responders;
  • Penalizes drivers with a $100 fine for the first offense, a $250 fine and safety course for the second offense and a $500 fine and surcharge for third and subsequent offenses;
  • Expands data collection, including age, race, gender, and location when police issue a citation;
  • Holds law enforcement agencies accountable, if data suggests agencies may be engaging in racial profiling, by requiring them to collect data on all traffic stops for one-year and provide bias training;
  • Requires the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security (EOPSS) to publish data online annually
  • Mandates EOPSS to contract with a research institution to conduct an annual analysis of the data;
  • Directs the EOPSS Secretary to hold three public hearings across the Commonwealth annually to present the findings of the annual report and analysis and field public testimony; and
  • Creates a public awareness campaign informing and educating drivers on the dangers of using technological devices while driving.

The bill now goes to the governor.

Rep. Benson’s September & October 2019 Office Update

In the District

One of my favorite parts of being your State Representative is traveling around the district and going to events. This is especially enjoyable in the fall, with the beautiful foliage and apple orchards that span the district from Lunenburg to Acton.  I attended almost two dozen district events in September and October, including ribbon cuttings, forums, and tours of small businesses.

Grand Openings & Ribbon Cuttings

On September 7, I celebrated the grand opening of the Ayer Community Garden on Barnum Road. Sheila Carman led a group of Ayer citizens in creating a community space where families can grow fresh fruits and vegetables together.

The South Acton Commuter Rail Station is the busiest location on the Fitchburg Line, with more than 1,000 daily riders boarding there. As such, there is a massive demand for more parking at the Station. On October 7, I visited the Station to celebrate the Town’s purchase of 19-21 Maple Street, which will add dozens of new parking spaces for commuters.

Celebrating District Funding

On September 30, I celebrated the appropriation of funding for local projects in the FY19 and FY20 state budgets at four events around the district. In Acton, I visited the Discovery Museum with Senator Eldridge and Representative Gouveia to present the $150,000 they received in the budget. The Acton delegation continued on to the Acton Community Supper and Food Pantry to present the $30,000 the delegation secured to aid them in providing meals to the more than 200 families they serve each week.

From there, Senator Eldridge and I visited Loaves & Fishes Food Pantry in Devens. Senator Eldridge filed, and I supported, a budget amendment for $120,000 for the food pantry. Loaves & Fishes provides food to over 900 families each month from Ayer, Harvard, Shirley, and surrounding towns.

The final stop of the day was in Shirley to present the $50,000 included in the FY20 budget to fund accessibility upgrades to the War Memorial Building, which also serves as American Legion Post 183. Senator Eldridge and I also announced that Shirley has been awarded a $392,000 Complete Streets grant to make pedestrian improvements to Front Street in Shirley Village.

Nineteenth Amendment Centennial

I was honored to be asked to narrate an episode of the Freedom’s Way National Heritage Area’s audio series commemorating the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. The episode is about Hazel MacKaye, a suffragette who lived in Shirley and used her talents in theater production to bring attention to the movement.

NVMC Nurses Victory

After more than a year of contract disputes, in September, the more than 100 registered nurses of the Nashoba Valley Medical Center reached an agreement with the hospital’s owner, Steward Health Care. The nurses won better wages, a pension plan, and staffing improvements. I supported the nurses’ efforts throughout the dispute, and I stopped by their victory party in Ayer on October 4 to congratulate them.

Constituent Spotlight

Every year, members of the Legislature can nominate a business in their district for a Manufacturer of the Year award from the Massachusetts Manufacturing Caucus. This year, I nominated Little Leaf Farms of Devens. Founded in 2016, Little Leaf Farms grows produce year-round in their hydroponic, energy efficient greenhouses. In three years, they have doubled their growing capacity to 5 acres, and they plan to double it again next year. It has been incredible to watch their business grow into one of the largest food manufacturers in the district.


Legislative Update

After the August recess, the House of Representatives was very active in September and October, passing several important bills.

Union Bill Override

In September, the Legislature overrode a veto by Governor Baker on a bill supporting public sector unions. I was proud to cast my vote to allow public sector unions to recover from non-members the reasonable costs associated with representing them in the labor negotiation process. This common practice had been challenged since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against unions in a case last year.

Campaign Finance Reform

On September 25, the House passed reforms to the state’s campaign finance laws to require more frequent reporting of donations and expenditures. The bill also seeks to change the makeup of the commission that appoints the head of the Office of Campaign and Political Finance to be nonpartisan.

College Closure Bill

The House passed legislation requiring further financial transparency from private colleges and universities. The bill would allow regulators to screen higher education institutions for financial trouble to avoid sudden closures and mergers of these schools, which the upend students’ lives. A similar bill passed the Senate in October, and a compromise needs to be worked out before it can become law.

Supplemental Budget

With revenue exceeding the benchmark set last year by hundreds of millions of dollars, the House passed a supplemental spending bill in October. The bill puts an additional $400 million into the Commonwealth’s Rainy Day Fund, bringing the total balance to $3.2 billion.

The bill includes $24 million for the testing of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination of water supplies and for grants to support treatment and remediation, as well as $35 million for the Clean Water Trust Fund. Several towns in the district are affected by PFAS contamination, and this funding will help them test and treat their public water supplies. Language from a bill filed by Representative Hogan and me establishing a PFAS task force was also included. This task force will bring public health agencies and policymakers together to study the issue of PFAS contamination and come up with solutions.

The House and Senate still need to iron out the differences between the supplemental budgets both houses passed before the spending bill can become law.

Student Opportunity Act

As someone who began my career in public service as a member of the Lunenburg School Committee, I was extraordinarily proud to vote for the Student Opportunity Act. This once-in-a-generation reform to the way public education is funded in Massachusetts invests an additional $1.5 billion in the Commonwealth’s children over seven years, and updates the Chapter 70 funding formula.

This historic education equity bill will ensure that every student in Massachusetts has access to a high-quality public education. The Senate passed a slightly different version of the bill, and a conference committee was appointed to reach a compromise.


Looking Ahead

In November, the House will be taking up a veterans’ mental health bill, and I will be participating in the Women in Government health care conference in Washington, D.C. I will also be attending several events in the district.

Please reach out to my district office at 978-582-4146 ext. 4, or my State House office at 617-722-2430, if you wish to discuss legislation or you need assistance with a constituent matter.

My next update will be out in early December, so have a happy Thanksgiving and enjoy spending time with your families.

Sincerely,

Jennifer Benson

Ahead of Veterans Day, Rep. Benson Votes for Legislation to Support and Honor Veterans

Two bills increase access to mental health services at public universities and recognize the historic contributions of a female Revolutionary War veteran

(BOSTON) – Yesterday, Representative Jennifer Benson and her colleagues in the House of Representatives passed two pieces of legislation to improve access to mental health services for student veterans and to honor the military service contributions of a female American Revolutionary War soldier – days before the nation celebrates Veterans Day on Nov. 11.

One bill establishes a continuing education program – administered by the University of Massachusetts Medical School – to train public higher education counselors on the symptoms of conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and available treatment resources for veterans attending state colleges and universities. The legislation aims to provide the necessary training for both clinical and non-clinical counselors working to support the unique needs of the more than 2,500 veteran students attending the state’s 29 public higher education institutions.

The second bill establishes a 15-member commission to design a memorial in honor of Deborah Sampson, who disguised herself as a man in order to serve in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. The commission will consist of legislators, the Secretary of the Department of Veterans’ Services, and representatives of veteran organizations.

In 1782, Sampson used the name Robert Shurtleff to join the Fourth Massachusetts Infantry Regiment led by Captain George Webb. Disguised as a man, she participated in dangerous scouting missions, led a raiding party that captured 15 British soldiers, and stormed a British fort during the Siege of Yorktown. Over the course of her service, Sampson sustained injuries, including a forehead gash from a sword and a gunshot wound to the thigh. She tended to her own wounds to avoid detection as a woman. When she later fell ill and was hospitalized, her identity was discovered.

After fighting in the War for over a year, she received an honorable discharge, and was the only woman to receive a full military pension for her service in the Continental Army. John Hancock and Paul Revere assisted her in obtaining her pension, and General John Patterson selected her as his aide de camp due to her bravery. Sampson is the official state heroine of Massachusetts.

These two bills build on the Legislature’s long-standing support for veterans, with Massachusetts’ benefits and services often ranked first in the nation. Most recently, the legislature passed the   BRAVE Act and legislation to assist veterans with property taxes. 

The bills will now go to the Senate.