Facts about the Student Opportunity Act
As students and families stay home to stop the spread of coronavirus in our communities, and public schools and colleges close, we are all adapting to the new reality we face. With the rapid changes happening daily, we need to act now to Ensure Equity and Resources in Learning in our schools and colleges, and Cancel the MCAS to let teachers and students focus on staying healthy and sustaining our educational system.
- All public schools and colleges must have their budgets maintained at a minimum of FY2020 levels for the duration of the health and economic crisis.
- As decisions are made regarding curriculum and online learning, equity and addressing the widening achievement and opportunity gaps caused by online learning must be at the center of any decisions. We can’t allow students in schools with resources and privilege to move ahead while students in schools without resources and privilege fall behind.
- All college and university students must be allowed to take courses on a “pass or fail” basis. College and university students must not be penalized for lack of access to safe learning conditions, required technology, or comparable and adequate learning accommodations.
- We must have an open conversation about how the 2020-2021 school year will look different from a normal year and ensure any decisions reflect the harm to students, families, and teachers caused by the coronavirus crisis.
- Massachusetts education officials canceled this spring’s MCAS exams, the state’s standardized tests, amid a statewide closure of schools due to the coronavirus pandemic. This is good news for students and families. They should not have to worry about standardized tests on top of concerns about access to food, housing, mental and physical well-being. That’s why more than 6,000 Massachusetts residents contacted state leaders demanding that MCAS be canceled. (The legislature responded by canceling for one year the law that allows for MCAS.) Moving forward, we must also examine the consequences of administering the MCAS in 2021 due to the growth in achievement and opportunity gaps caused by the shift to online learning.
We won! The Student Opportunity Act, signed into law on Nov. 26, is a tremendous victory for students and our communities. It provides a major infusion of new funding to Massachusetts public schools. Backed by the Fund Our Future Coalition, the act is by far the most significant update of the state education funding system since the Massachusetts Education Reform Act was enacted in 1993. The primary beneficiaries will be low-income students, students of color and English learners who have been left behind by the outdated system.
The new law, Chapter 132 of the Acts of 2019, updates the foundation budget. A unique foundation budget is created for each district specifying the minimum level of education spending required to adequately educate the district’s students. The costs are shared between municipalities and the state. First, the state calculates how much a municipality must contribute, largely based on local income and property tax wealth. Next, the state determines the difference between the “required local contribution” and the foundation budget. State Chapter 70 aid is then allocated to make up that difference.
Under the Student Opportunity Act, a relatively small number of districts will have to spend more on their local schools than they otherwise would have, but the majority will not because they already contribute more than mandated. Most of the new money under the act will come from the state. Projections show that new Chapter 70 allocations will exceed $2 billion a year by 2027 in actual dollars — or about $1.4 billion over what the aid would have been without the SOA.
The act addresses the real costs of:
- Educating low-income students. The SOA defines low-income families as those whose incomes are at
or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level, up from the current 133 percent. In addition, the law
provides increased per-pupil funding above the baseline level depending on a community’s concentration
of poverty, ultimately providing twice as much funding — a 100 percent increment — for low-income
students in districts with the highest concentrations.
- Educating special education students and English learners.
- Providing guidance and psychological services.
- Providing health insurance to employees and retirees.
The SOA adds another estimated $100 million annually by:
- Expanding special education circuit breaker reimbursements to include transportation costs and fixing
an unintended side effect that reduces these reimbursements as the foundation budget increases ($90
million annually after four-year phase-in).
- Establishing a new grant program called the Twenty-First Century Education Trust Fund intended to
support innovative programs ($10 million annually).
The SOA also sets a three-year schedule to fully fund the charter school reimbursement line item, though it
does not address the long-term impact of charter schools. Additionally, it lifts the annual cap on Massachusetts
School Building Authority spending by $200 million — from $600 million to $800 million.
The SOA requires superintendents, in consultation with their school committees, to create three-year improvement plans that specify how the new funding will be spent. It states that the superintendent “shall consider input and recommendations from parents and other relevant community stakeholders, including but not limited to special education and English learner parent advisory councils, school improvement councils and educators in the school district.” The first plans must be submitted to the state by April 1, 2020.
- The plans must address “persistent disparities in achievement among student subgroups” based on
metrics developed by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
- The law lists nine programs described as “evidence-based”; districts must either include such programs
in their plans or explain why they do not believe they will “effectively address persistent disparities
in achievement.” In addition, the law adds a 10th catchall: “any other program determined by the
commissioner [of education] to be evidence-based.”
- The commissioner has the authority to review community-developed plans to ensure that they address all
of the provisions in the law.
It is very important that educators and parents participate in the development of the district improvement plans to make sure the money is allocated to the services that they know students need. Plans that have an impact on unionized employees’ wages, hours and working conditions are subject to bargaining.
The fight is not over.
While the Student Opportunity Act is now law, legislators have taken no action to address the problem of underfunding at our public colleges and universities through the Cherish Act. We also must organize in our local communities to make sure that administrators and local officials spend these funds on real student needs and to prevent state education officials from burdening school districts with mandates that take time away from teaching and learning.
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