From the Beacon, December 2019, with minor edits to reflect that the Act has been signed into law

The 2019 Student Opportunity Act, passed unanimously by the Legislature on the last day of formal sessions and signed by Gov. Charlie Baker on Nov. 26, is a major achievement for lawmakers. Enactment of this very welcome law means that vital updates to the Chapter 70 formula will be in place before the fiscal 2021 state budget process begins in January, committing the state to increasing its financial support for public schools and infusing many struggling school districts with much-needed education aid.

The MMA applauds the leadership of House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Senate President Karen Spilka, and the hard-working Education Committee chairs, Rep. Alice Peisch and Sen. Jason Lewis, for devoting countless hours to this task, and for reaching a timely agreement on this important legislation.

While significant interim progress has been made regarding Chapter 70 funding in recent state budget acts, this law was needed to improve on these steps and make them an enduring part of state law.

For many years, stakeholders representing all facets of Massachusetts have embraced the need to update the spending standards in Chapter 70, as a necessary action to keep the state’s landmark 1993 school finance law current and aligned with the actual needs and costs at the local level. This school finance law amends key parts of Chapter 70 consistent with the 2015 recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission.

As a member of that commission, the MMA was a strong voice in calling for updating the foundation factors that significantly undercounted basic education costs, including in the areas of special education, school employee health insurance, and educational programs for low-income and English learner students. The MMA also applauds Gov. Charlie Baker for his proposals to augment the FBRC report, especially the increase in foundation rates for guidance and psychological services to support expanded social, emotional and mental health programming. The final version of the Student Opportunity Act addresses all of these important improvements.

The MMA is also grateful for the Student Opportunity Act’s expansion of the special education circuit breaker program to include reimbursement for a portion of eligible out-of-district transportation costs, and the plan to phase in full funding of the statutory formula for charter school impact reimbursements. We look forward to these important items being included in future state budget bills, as well as the increase in the cap on spending through the School Building Assistance program. All of these initiatives are essential complements to the Chapter 70 investments.

We also commend the provision in the Student Opportunity Act that asks the Department of Revenue and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to conduct an analysis of the impact of Proposition 2½ on the ability of municipalities to make their required local contributions in the short-term and long-term, and to make recommendations to mitigate the constraints of Proposition 2½. In some parts of the state, especially those with declining or stagnant property values, a number of communities are at or close to their Proposition 2½ levy ceiling, which limits, or even prevents, growth in overall local property tax collections. The issue to review is whether the annual increase in local school contribution levels will be realistic for those districts that are at or near their levy ceiling. This study in no way threatens Proposition 2½; it merely ensures that the updated Chapter 70 framework is workable for those communities that face this particular issue.

Building on this progress
As impressive as the Student Opportunity Act is, it is not possible for one piece of legislation to solve every single challenge, especially with the remarkably complex range of issues that are connected to school finance.

Looking ahead, the MMA and cities and towns across Massachusetts will continue to work hard on the important aspects of school funding that remain ongoing challenges. These include ensuring adequate minimum aid levels, fixing the charter school funding system, and addressing the challenges facing rural schools.

Adequate minimum aid: While the Student Opportunity Act will phase in a $1.4 billion increase in Chapter 70 aid over the next seven years, a high percentage of cities, towns and school districts will likely remain “minimum-aid-only” going forward. At $30 per student, the minimum new aid amount included in the new law, these school districts will receive below-inflation increases each year, and will be forced to scale back education programming or cut municipal services to make up the difference. We need to make certain that all communities can at least maintain the quality of their schools, which is why minimum aid will continue to be a priority concern in the fiscal 2021 state budget process.

Fixing the charter school funding structure: Even if the charter school reimbursement formula is fully funded, as promised in the Student Opportunity Act, many districts could still lose more Chapter 70 funding to charter schools each year than they receive in new aid, making them “net negative,” and harming programs for the students who remain in traditional public schools. This is why the entire charter funding system should be examined and improved, and the MMA has filed separate legislation to provide necessary reforms. We believe state policy should include a floor or circuit-breaker provision to ensure that each district’s net Chapter 70 aid available for non-charter-school spending increases at an acceptable level from year to year.

Rural school districts: Even with the above reforms and policies, many smaller rural school districts – especially those with declining enrollment – will still struggle. That’s because further consolidation and other fiscal efficiencies are simply not feasible in these areas. Introducing a new rural school factor in the foundation budget could address this issue, and the MMA will be working with legislators on this issue.

The Student Opportunity Act is the most significant education law enacted in the past 26 years, and lawmakers should be proud of this achievement. The act will make a real difference in many school districts, especially those with large numbers of low-income students, and that is a major step forward to celebrate.

City and town leaders look forward to continuing this partnership with state leaders, so that we can make progress on these remaining school finance challenges. When this happens, Massachusetts will lock in place its status as the nation’s education leader.

Written by Geoff Beckwith, MMA Executive Director & CEO