While the Student Opportunity Act is now law and promises to bring financial support to underfunded school districts, the COVID-19 pandemic has precipitated budget cuts in districts across the state, due to uncertainty about the upcoming state budget.
Our schools – especially those serving low-income students and students of color – need resources now more than ever to meet students’ educational needs, and to protect students, parents, teachers, and staff from the health risks posed by COVID-19.
Health and Safety
We cannot afford to operate as though 2020/21 were a normal school year at the expense of the health of thousands of children, families, and educators. In the first week of reporting, nearly 100 students and school staff members tested positive for COVID-19 after participating in hybrid and in-person models of learning across the state.
Governor Charlie Baker and state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley have been pressuring districts into using as much in-person learning as possible, rather than supporting educators in delivering a robust remote-learning model that meets students’ academic, social and emotional needs. Baker and Riley have made it impossible to provide students, families and educators with a uniform, safe approach to reopening schools – and they are contributing to the chaos resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the pandemic persists, we need to continually ask “Does this policy benefit the health and safety of everyone in our public schools?” This needs to be the standard that we use to create responsible, responsive policies that are appropriate for the constantly shifting public health landscape.
The only way to manage the coronavirus is through frequent testing and immediate quarantine whenever there is a suspected case or transmission. Yet some school districts are only agreeing to cover COVID-19 absences AFTER educators’ receive a positive COVID test, penalizing them for taking precautionary measures by mandating that they have to use vacation or sick hours in order to protect their students, colleagues, and families.
We need to incentivize transparency in school districts by covering COVID-19 absences including testing, and by providing remote learning options for students and educators. Putting their safety first is the swiftest path to ensuring that we can all responsibly return to in-person schooling and keep our kids safe.
If implemented as planned, The Student Opportunity Act would provide a major infusion of new funding to Massachusetts public schools. As we work to operate schools safely and start to repair the trauma and learning loss that students are experiencing, students in high-poverty communities need the increased support the Student Opportunity Act promised them, now more than ever.
It’s undeniable that safely operating Massachusetts’ public schools and colleges will cost significantly more than in pre-COVID times. But due to uncertainty about the state’s commitment to funding public education, school districts all across the state are making budget cuts and laying off educators, and our public colleges are slashing their already-bare-bones budgets.
Our public school education must be safe and accessible for all students. We can’t allow low-income students, students with disabilities, and English language learners to fall behind while students in wealthy school districts move ahead, but that’s exactly what will happen if the state fails to act.
The communities being harmed most by the spread of the coronavirus are those the Student Opportunity Act was designed to help the most. It’s no accident that the coronavirus has disproportionately affected high-poverty Gateway Cities with many immigrant families, where so many parents are essential workers in the healthcare and service sectors.
About the Student Opportunity Act
The Student Opportunity Act, (SOA) signed into law on Nov. 26, 2019 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. 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 special education students and English learners.
- 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.
- 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.
The fight is not over.
Now more than ever, schools need increased funding to meet students’ educational needs and to protect students, teachers and parents from the health risks that COVID-19 presents.
If implemented as planned, The Student Opportunity Act would provide a major infusion of new funding to Massachusetts public schools. As we work to reopen schools and start to repair the trauma and learning loss that students are experiencing, students in high-poverty communities need the increased support the Student Opportunity Act promised them, now more than ever.
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.
Legislators also need to address the problem of underfunding at our public colleges and universities through the Cherish Act at this time when so many students and families face financial uncertainty. Learn more about Higher Ed funding and The Cherish Act here.