‘Everything we wanted’: City, state leaders hail landmark education bill

Budget issues in the Boston Public Schools look to be something of the past after Gov. Charlie Baker signed off on a landmark education funding bill last week – legislation known as the Student Opportunity Act.

This week, Charlestown Sen. Sal DiDomenico – who has labored tirelessly to pass some form of education funding reform over the past five years – State Rep. Dan Ryan, and Mayor Martin Walsh said the bill was historic and would be everything the City needed to address its budget problems.

“It’s a home run; it’s everything we were looking for and wanted and the timeline is good because it ramps up to over a seven-year period for funding,” he said. “The commitment financially is significant. These numbers that will be coming are game-changing for Everett, Boston and Chelsea. The signing of this bill will be a day we look back on and say it was a day that all children were guaranteed an opportunity to succeed. This was historic. It really was. It’s something that we’ve all been wanting for a very, very long time…After today, no longer will your zip code be a hindrance to getting the resources you need to get a great education.”

State Rep. Dan Ryan said one of the keys in this go-around of the education funding debate was making sure the bill benefitted everyone, including Boston schools.

“Because of its sheer size and economics, the City of Boston was in a very precarious position under the previous funding formula,” he said. “I worked with Mayor Walsh and his team from year to year to prioritize items that may help to plug budget holes. Some of what we prioritized in yearly budgets, Charter School reimbursement back to districts, is now scheduled to be permanently addressed by this legislation. Boston, also had a great advocate in Chairman Michlewitz. I thank him, Speaker DeLeo and Chairwoman Peisch for their constant leadership over the past several years and for pushing, advocating and teaching the membership about a very complex issue.”

Mayor Walsh emphasized that the bill was reached with togetherness and unity, and that is rare on such a major spending bill.

“This bill marks the culmination of years of advocacy and hard work from so many people who came together to say that students in all school districts across Massachusetts deserve a high-quality education,” said Walsh. “It is an incredible and historic moment that we have reached together as we celebrate the signing of this bill which treats every district and student with equity, recognizing the different challenges our students face and empowering schools to help our students rise up and reach their dreams.”    

Supt. Brenda Cassellius said the Boston schools look forward to the implementation and making sure the schools are accountable under the new rules.

“I’m grateful for the dedication and foresight of Mayor Walsh, our state leaders and BPS students, parents and teachers who worked to make public education a priority with this bill’s passage,” she said. “I look forward to working with our leaders and holding ourselves accountable so that the goal of this funding- better outcomes for our neediest children- is fully realized.”

The bill was signed at Boston’s English High School on Nov. 26 with numerous dignitaries and elected officials in attendance. After the bill passed both the House and Senate last month, there was quite a question mark as to whether Baker would sign it. That all changed last week when he made the plans to sign it at English High.

“I am pleased to sign legislation aimed at providing students across the Commonwealth with the opportunities and resources they need to succeed including accountability measures that are essential to supporting underperforming schools,” said Governor Charlie Baker. “This funding builds on the over half a billion dollars in new Chapter 70 funding our Administration has supported since taking office. We thank our partners in the Legislature for their hard work and we look forward to implementing this legislation for every child in every school district in Massachusetts.”

The bill has had many attempts at passage, but failed on a number of occasions for various reasons. DiDomenico – who started his journey on the matter in a diverse education funding committee almost five years ago – said it succeeded this time because everyone was on board and no one had to vote against their best interests.

“There were no loopholes or things that made it hard because members had to vote against their community,” he said. “The vote was unanimous. Even the governor couldn’t go against it. This is unprecedented that everyone who voted on the bill, all the unions, all the School Committees, and all the superintendents – everyone was on the same page due to how important this bill was. It was very, very unusual.”

Over the next seven years, the state has committed to investing $1.5 billion into public education, and with inflation factored in, about $2 billion. The plan will roll out with increases in the Chapter 70 education formula increasing – in addition to other things within the bill that will increase funding.

In Boston, it is estimated that by year seven, more than $100 million will be coming into the district due to the landmark legislation. The numbers are not yet fixed, and they will be incremental, but eclipsing $100 million is expected .

A good amount of that comes due to the fix of fully funding the Charter School reimbursements to the district.

By state law, a district is reimbursed for any student that leaves the public school for a charter school. Those reimbursements are 100 percent funding in the first year, and then 25 percent of the funding for five years after. The state had been reimbursing districts, but not at the full level required by the law.

“Boston is going to see big increases in funding year over year, and that will help the Charlestown schools a lot,” said DiDomenico. “The Charter School reimbursement for Boston was really huge…In the last few go-arounds of the bill, Boston wasn’t seeing these kinds of benefits, but now they will. They are included now and they will get what they deserve.”

Additionally, school districts will see increased reimbursements for transporting students to out-of-district special education placements. It also raises a cap on state funding for school building projects by $150 million from $600 million to $750 million; and creates a grant fund for innovative educational approaches.

Money is expected to start coming down to the districts next year in the Fiscal Year 2021 Budget, which Gov Baker is expected to file sometime in late January or early February. Each year will see things grow incrementally until year seven hits the full amount promised.

“The ramp up with this bill fill start showing up in next year’s budget,” said DiDomenico. “The amount we’ve talked about for the district will be out in year seven, but every year leading up to it will see big increases. Many have asked me when they’ll start seeing money come into the district. The answer is it starts next year.”

That said, the education funding money doesn’t just roll in come what may. There are strict accountability measurements that are required to get the full funding. If students don’t perform well, not all of the funding will be delivered.

The bill requires school districts to develop three-year plans to close achievement gaps using evidence-based programs and supports, such as expanded learning time, increased counseling and psychological services, professional development, expanded early learning and pre-kindergarten, early college and career readiness pathways, and a more diverse teacher workforce. 

The Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education will establish statewide targets for addressing persistent achievement gaps among student groups, and will review each district’s plan to ensure it sets measurable goals for student improvement, with credible strategies for achieving them. Districts must amend any plan deemed by the Commissioner not to conform with these standards.

The bill also requires the Secretary of Education to collect data on student preparedness for college and career success by school district and high school, including student participation rates in college and career readiness programs, college acceptance and graduation rates, as well as the percentage of students in internships and earning industry-recognized credentials.

DiDomenico concluded by saying it will be important to make sure the funding program isn’t derailed by economic downturns or other budget priorities. At the moment, he said everyone is on board with that.

“The House and Senate are on record saying the one thing that won’t be lost if there are ebbs and flows in the economy is education,” he said. “We are committed to making sure education is held harmless for funding.”

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