Public Policy Updates: The House deliberates and passes the Student Opportunity Act

On Wednesday, October 23, the House deliberated and passed the Student Opportunity Act on a unanimous 155-0 vote after eight hours of deliberation and recesses. The session can be viewed online here. The bill and the record of votes cast can be found here

Rep. Alice Peisch, House chair of the Joint Committee on Education and co-chair of the Foundation Budget Review Commission, opened deliberation by saying that the bill being deliberated was the result of countless hours of meetings and hearings. Since 1993, Massachusetts schools "have rise to the top of the country and arguably the world."  When health insurance costs increased, the majority of districts appropriated more local funding, but districts that could not cut in other parts of their budget; as the findings of the Commission are in line with the findings of the original 1993 act, the "bulk of the funding of the bill is directed at our poorest communities." Students need "more than just equivalent experiences in the classroom," as there are differences in their lived experiences from the day they are born. "I hope and expect that we will move to a system," said Peisch, where it is not left to the schools to make up the differences, but in the meantime, "this is a good start." 

Representatives Michael Moran of Boston and Kimberly Ferguson of Holden, both of whom also served on the Foundation Budget Review Commission, also spoke in support of the bill, with Ferguson noting "not a week goes by" that this issue does not come up.

Rep. Jim Hawkins of Attleboro introduced amendment 55 which would change the language around reporting, as was passed in the Senate. He said,"we need to have local accountability; it needs to be the driver of what we do," and "what we do in my district doesn't need to be what the district next door does."
Rep. Joseph Wagner of Chicopee spoke in oppostion, saying it "proposes changes that take some of the teeth out of accountability." He made the analogy of his teenagers driving a car: "as a parent, I provide more fo the resources of the vehicle than [my children] do...I think that when I provide the car and the access to it, as a parent, I should reasonably expect accountability." This is, he said, "part of...what we should expect for an investment of $1.5B."
Rep. Andy Vargas of Haverhill said, while "I think that people in their local communities know best," during his time on the Haverhill City Council he witnessed how entrenched power could influence how funds were spent. He spoke of classroom sizes of 40 in the poorest, heavily Latinx precinct, while next door in a wealthier and white precinct, it was under 30. He said, "we should assume that each district has leadership that is just" but "as good stewards, we should can we assume that local control can get it right every time?" DESE cannot, under the bill take money away from the districts, and while "95% of districts invest more [local] money their schools than Haverhill...this body should not wait."
Hawkins withdrew the amendment.

Six members of the House chose this bill on which to make their first speech in the House chamber: Representatives Stephan Hay of Fitchburg, Tram Nguyen of Andover, Rich Haggerty of Woburn, Nika Elugardo of Boston, Chris Hendricks of New Bedford, and Dan Carey of Easthampton.
Hay said, "we've all heard many quotes or sayings about education...due to the current funding of education, these statements do not ring true."
Nguyen referenced her family's immigrant experience, saying to House applause that her parents said the family had to come to Massachusetts due to the education system; she referenced Adams including education in the state constitution, that it "was and still is necessary for our continued prosperity."
Haggerty said that he's "proud to live in a state that evaluates how well we educate...and works to change it."
Elugardo spoke of the unliklihood of her being there, of attending eight different schools before high school; when she speaks to students, she always shows them where in the state constitution it speaks of education and asks them to consider if their education is the same as in other communities in the state. She praised the "incredible work that was done to ensure that every kid across the Commonwealth, especially kids in the lowest income" have access to a good education.
Hendrichs noted the "monumental boost" provided to districts like his, and spoke of the charter reimbursement change "savying our cities and towns from financial ruin."
Carey, a former member of the Easthampton School Committee, quipped that when he first announced his candidacy eighteen months ago, he made a goal of updating the funding formula, and "frankly, Mr. Speaker, I'm surprised by how quickly I got it done." He then thanked those who had worked so long and hard to accomplish it, and said the bill should be passed because "it is the right thing to is the smart thing to do...and it is the time to do it." He said "history has taught us not to be complacent," and by cherishing the education system as the Constitution demands, "we cherish the children of this Commonwealth." He said, "Today, Mr. Speaker, we fund miracles." (His remarks are online here.)

Amendment 62, proposed by Rep. Alyson Sullivan of Abington, was to increase the minimum per pupil increases to $50 per pupil; Sullivan argued that this would be $19M. Peisch replied that minimum aid is only for those communities that, when the formula is run, don't qualify for an increase. Rep. Colleen Garry of Dracut said "it's very very difficult" to look at the aid numbers for her communities, that "the vast amount of funding goes to our cities." Rep. Denise Garlick of Needham said "the very purpose of Chapter 70 is to" support to school districts. The amendment failed. 

Rep. Patrick Kearney of Scituate spoke in favor of his amendment 36, which was to recreate the full day kindergarten implementation grant. The elimination of the grant in 2016 left 17% of districts without full day kindergarten; he said currently there are 38 districts that don't offer the program. Peisch said the program was intended to be transitional, but districts came to depend on it; she said when the program ended, those districts that were not offering full day kindergarten largely were doing so for reasons related to their districts; they tended to lack the capacity to fund it. Kearney, to chamber disapproval, responded by referencing the median income in Peisch's district of Wellesley, arguing there were districts that would like access to the program that did not have it. The amendment failed on a roll call vote.

Rep. Ann-Margaret Farrante of Gloucester said she was not embarrassed to say that she came from fishing community, where she thought, growing up, that it was a generous Italian gesture to have people over for dinner, but only realized as a adult that it was because there wasn't enough money to feed the family. She spoke of the importance of the increase in guidance and psychological services so students could have support to figure out what they will do after graduation.

Rep. Tami Gouveia of Acton spoke with "much excitement and optimism" of the bill, but also in support of her amendment 25, which would have scheduled reconsideration of the foundation budget every five years rather than every ten. She made the parallel of the federal census, which now has an interim gathering of information between the Constitutionally described periods. She then withdrew the amendment.

Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier of Pittsfield expressed her gratitute, among others, to the representatives whose districts would not benefit as substantially, praising them for embracing that a child's zip code should not determine their quality of education. She said today "we should be proud."

Rep. Mary Keefe of Worcester, one of the original co-sponsors of the Promise Act, rose "to sing the praises" of the bill. She spoke of the visit the prior weekend to one of the state prisons, and of two men who specifically noted their struggling in school as when they started down the wrong path; one told her he never truly learned to read and write until he was incarcerated. She said, "education is one of the most important tools we have to combat poverty and generational trauma." She closed by quoting lyrics of "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize."

Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa of Northampton spoke of the bill as "a beautiful piece of social justice." Her district includes two regional schools, and said she that she "was struck by the stories of what rural transportation looks like." She said, "for small towns with an aging population, there will come a time when there is nothing left to cut." She then withdrew amendment 5 on regional transportation, hoping "it will result in more robust debate in the near future."

Rep. Aaron Vega of Holyoke spoke movingly of his father who failed first grade because he did not speak English. The silver lining of the bills on funding which had failed is the bill today, which makes investments in communities like his. "There's still more work to do to ensure that Massachusetts stays number one in education," he said, while saying he believes the bill will help all of the children in the Commonwealth.

Rep. David LeBoeuf of Worcester noted the importance of taking care of the most vulnerable students, and said that hehad filed amendment 58 on foster care students due to a student in his own district: an eight year old who was acting out in school, and, when asked by her teacher about it, she said that over the past two weeks, "she had been in a different home every night." He asked, "how can anyone achieve your educational goals when you don't know where you're sleeping that night?" Noting it was part of a larger effort to reform foster care, he withdrew his amendment.

Rep. Brad Hill of Ipswitch said that he had been told his proposed amendment 33 regarding the special education costs of those students who move midyear was a new issue, and so he withdrew the amendment.

Rep. Paul Frost of Auburn spoke on his amendment 46 regarding hold harmless, to withdraw it.

 Rep. Antonio Cabral of New Bedford said that he had been among those who had voted in favor of the 1993 Education Reform law, and he "would be delighted and happy to favor of this piece of legislation." He said he believed the issues of charter school finance would be done in the future and withdrew his amendment 49 on charter finance.

Without discussion, amendments on rural schools (amendment 3), on adding a commission regarding state mandates (amendment 41) and an increase of the MSBA cap to $800M (amendment 37) were adopted. 

Rep. Chynah Tyler of Boston said "we must hold ourselves accountable for our students' needs." 

Amendment 59 on charter school accountability was adopted as changed.

On a roll call vote, the bill was passed, 155-0. 

The bill as passed will go to conference committee to reconcile differences between the House and Senate versions.