Sen. President Karen Spilka, Sen. Jason Lewis, Rep. Alice Peisch and House Speaker Robert DeLeo unveiled the education finance reform bill. (Photo: Sam Doran/State House News Service)

The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education this morning released a sweeping school finance bill that would amend the state’s landmark Chapter 70 school finance law.

The announcement in the State House library was attended by Senate President Karen Spilka, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and the House and Senate chairs of the Education Committee, Sen. Jason Lewis and Rep. Alice Peisch. The bill, called the Student Opportunity Act, was described as a consensus proposal.

The committee’s bill is headed to the Senate, where debate is scheduled to begin on Oct. 3. If the consensus holds during debate, a final bill could be enacted and sent to the governor before the legislative session ends on Nov. 20.

The bill would update factors in Chapter 70’s foundation budget spending standard consistent with the 2015 recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission. The bill would implement the changes over a seven-year period. As a member of the FBRC, the MMA supported updating foundation factors that clearly undercounted basic education costs, including in the areas of special education, school employee health insurance, and educational programs for low-income and English language learner students.

The bill would also increase foundation rates for guidance and psychological services to support expanded social-emotional supports and mental health services.

The bill would establish in Chapter 70 a floor for the minimum annual aid increase at $30 per student. This amount is now set each year as part of the state budget process; it is $30 this year. Many school districts fall into this minimum aid category.

The proposed changes to the foundation budget would affect Chapter 70 education aid and local contribution amounts across the state. The changes would begin in fiscal 2021.

The impact of the bill would vary across different types of districts, resulting in substantial aid increases for some while a number of districts would remain in the minimum aid category. The changes would also affect the minimum municipal contribution in some cities and towns, and could have an impact on assessments used to pay tuition to charter schools.

Any change to school finance law has complicated outcomes, and city and town officials are asking their legislators to check on the details.

The bill would also change the special education circuit breaker program to allow reimbursement for transportation costs. It would also set a schedule to provide additional funds for charter school impact reimbursements, subject to state appropriation, and would lift the cap on spending through the School Building Assistance program.

The bill proposes policy changes intended to bring focus to how new funding is used to improve student outcomes and close opportunity gaps. The bill would establish a 21st Century Education Trust Fund to provide flexible funding to districts and schools pursuing new approaches to student learning and district improvement. It would also require school districts to develop and make public plans for closing opportunity gaps.

The bill would keep work moving on two important school finance issues that were not resolved in time for the Student Opportunity Act. It would direct the Department of Revenue and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to analyze the method of determining required local contributions in the Chapter 70 formula for the purpose of improving equity, predictability and accuracy. And the bill would establish a Rural Schools Commission to investigate the challenges facing rural and regional school districts with low and declining enrollment.

Link to full text of S.2348 Student Opportunity Act
Student Opportunity Act Fact Sheet (provided by the Joint Committee on Education) (924K PDF)
Student Opportunity Act Summary (632K PDF)

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