Senate OK of education funding bill a ‘giant step' forward

Senate OK of education funding bill a ‘giant step' forward

student opportunity act
MTA members and other public education activists listened to speakers at the State House in advance of the Senate debate on the Student Opportunity Act.

MTA President Merrie Najimy today cheered the state Senate’s passage of the Student Opportunity Act, saying, “Today, the Fund Our Future campaign and the Massachusetts Senate advanced education and racial justice by a giant step. We urge the House to pass the bill with the same speed so that after years of advocacy by our members and communities, we can all reap the fruits of a more just funding system. All communities will gain from this bill, but the biggest winners are low-income students in our Gateway Cities — many of whom are students of color — and students in our high-poverty rural districts.”

Najimy added, “Our members can be proud of how much they have won so far, but we can’t stop until a new and better education funding bill is finally enacted into law.”

The bill, modeled on the MTA-backed Promise Act, was approved by a vote of 39 to 0 after a full day and evening of debate and discussion. If approved by the House, it will provide districts with $1.4 billion in new Chapter 70 aid over inflation and another $100 million in additional education resources after being fully phased in over seven years. The biggest increase is for educating low-income students, providing twice as much per-pupil funding for such students in districts with high concentrations of poverty.

“The gulf between what our wealthiest and most impoverished districts have to educate our students has been a disgrace,” said MTA Vice President Max Page. “This bill would take us a long way toward equalizing opportunities in our schools. All of our students deserve small class sizes and excellent teaching in core academic subjects, as well as art and music, counseling services and athletics, and all of the extracurricular offerings that are taken for granted in more affluent communities.”

The Student Opportunity Act was reported out of the Education Committee on Sept. 19 with strong support from both House and Senate leaders. The Senate chair of the committee, Senator Jason Lewis (D-Winchester), set the stage for today’s marathon session by describing the bill in detail. If it is passed into law, he said, “we will have the strongest and most progressive system in the entire country.”

“Our members can be proud of how much they have won so far, but we can’t stop until a new and better education funding bill is finally enacted into law.”MTA President Merrie Najimy
Lewis said the bill would add approximately $300 million more to the Chapter 70 line item each year for the next seven years by adopting the recommendations of the 2015 Foundation Budget Review Commission, along with several additional provisions.

Other Senate champions of the bill, or of amendments supported by the Fund Our Future coalition, included Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz (D-Boston), chief sponsor of the Promise Act, and Senators Marc Pacheco (D-Taunton), Patrick O’Connor (R-Weymouth), Paul Feeney (D-Foxborough) and Pat Jehlen (D-Somerville).

An amendment filed by Jehlen that was one of relatively few to be adopted ensures that neither the governor nor state education officials can withhold Chapter 70 funds from districts. It also eliminates provisions that would have tightened the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s bureaucratic hold on districts, expands the scope of local plans to include programs and services that districts provide to students, and includes a requirement that parents, educators and other local stakeholders have direct input into school district plans.

The senators also voted to increase funding for the Massachusetts School Building Assistance program, bringing the new total to $800 million each year, up from the current $600 million. And although the Senate did not adopt a charter school funding amendment filed by Pacheco, Senate President Karen Spilka agreed to set up a panel to focus on charter policy.

Governor Charlie Baker filed a much smaller education funding bill back in January. He has not yet said whether he will sign, send back or veto the Student Opportunity Act if it is passed by both branches.

“We must keep the pressure on to ensure that the bill is approved by a veto-proof margin,” said Najimy.

Chang-Díaz concluded her remarks on the need for school funding with praise for all of the ordinary residents who have been fighting for “education justice” for years.

“What we are doing today is an enormous deal,” she said. “Seismic change doesn’t happen by itself, and it doesn’t happen overnight. It always requires resilient advocacy, courage and commitment by people across the state. … If you wrote an email, If you helped pass a local school committee resolution, if you wrote a Facebook post or met with your legislators — this bill belongs to you. You helped make this happen today.”