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

On Thursday, October 3, the Massachusetts Senate deliberated and passed, as amended, Senate Bill 2350, the Student Opportunity Act, which would update the foundation budget, along with other measures; read MASC's Legislative bulletin regarding the Act as proposed by the Joint Committee here.

Senator Jason Lewis, Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Education, opened the Senate's deliberation. "[R]ising today with great excitement and enthusiasm," Lewis spoke of the state's "long and proud history when it comes to public education," citing both John Adams and Horace Mann. He spoke of our "first in the nation formula" when it came to funding public education, but noted further that it had not kept up with the needs of students and of districts, driving grave inequities among the state's nearly a million students. He spoke of the work of the Foundation Budget Review Commission, specifically recognizing, to extended applause, the work of Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz in jointly chairing the Commission and in working towards the implementation of its recommendations. He spoke of the beginnings the state has made towards implementation, but of the need for districts to have "certainty and predictability" in implementation. He then walked the Senate through the bill, including the pieces that go beyond the recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission, reflecting on his travels, with Joint Committee House Chair Representative Alice Peisch, around the state to hear directly from districts of their struggles. He thanked organizations and people who have worked "for years" on this issue, leading his list of local officials with school committee members across the state. 

Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz spoke next, thanking Lewis for his work, and voicing her support for what she called "detailed, thoughtful, durable legislation." Chang-Díaz told the story of Roburn Webby, who in 1978 filed the Webby v. Dukakis case that would eventually, upon reaching the Supreme Judicial Court fifteen years later, after she had graduated from high school, became the McDuffy decision, "which clearly laid out the right to a quality education." Reviewing the work of many that went into the creation of the Foundation Budget Review Commission, that went into the testimony before it, that went into the various bills along the way, and into the lawsuit already filed, Chang-Díaz said "our session today continues a half-century of work." Addressing herself directly to those not in the room, she thanked those who worked in big and in small ways along the way, including the School Committee members who passed resolutions. She reminded her colleagues of the difference between charity and justice; "in Massachusetts, we have the courage of our convictions." She noted that the Senate five separate times had passed the five recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission, saying "this is what not giving up looks like." She closed by requesting that when the entire bill was voted, that it be done by roll call. 

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr opened his remarks by praising the work of both Chang-Díaz and Lewis in bringing the Senate to this point. He then at some length requested a full data set of what every district in the state would receive over the implementation of the bill. Lewis responded by describing the modeling of "dozens and dozens" of scenarios that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education had done for the Joint Committee, and the difference in accuracy between modeling for the entire state versus bringing that down to the district level, given in particular enrollment and local economic changes that are in some cases dramatic. Lewis said the state "can't predict with any certainty whatsoever" on an individual school district or municipality level, and "we think it would be misleading and even irresponsible to put a bunch of numbers on paper" and let communities think that is what they can expect over the next several years. Eventually, Tarr called a recess for a Republican caucus in hopes, he said, of getting detailed numbers.

After the recess, the Senate began to take up amendments, in many cases setting them aside so other discussions might take place. Early on, Senator Michael Rodrigues, the Senate Chair of Ways and Means, said that the Committee did believe that the bill could be implemented without additional revenue sources, responding to a question from Senator Tarr. Senator Lewis took the opportunity to observe again that the vast majority of communities are spending in excess of their local required minimum, with the statewide average now being 30% over foundation, that very few communities would be required to increase their local spending, and "every community, every school district, will be getting more aid under the bill than they would get if this bill is not passed into law." 

Senator Sal DiDomenico, after speaking of the difficulties of his home city of Everett with the change from the low income measurement to the economically disadvantaged measurement, said "this is my proudest vote in the nine years I have been a state senator."

Among the early amendments taken up was amendment 7 filed by Senator Tarr, which would have required the foundation budget to be reconsidered every five years. While the amendment failed on a roll call vote, it was among the most split votes of the evening, with a vote of 14-24

Among the results of the amendment process was the creation of a Senate special commission to look at charter schools. Senator Marc Pacheco argued,"if we aren't even funding the charters we already have, why would we fund additional charters at this time?" He also said that he felt that the voters of the state had spoken during the debate on Question 2; "We all got a message on the statewide vote...people said 'no, no, no, stop doing what you're doing!' on charters." Senator Jo Comerford, through her advocacy for amendment 29, spoke of having the discussion "in an informed and thoughtful way" that she hoped would bring people together rather than divide them further. Senator Pat Jehlen, citing charts she brought to the floor showing the increasing amount of money going to charter schools, praised both Pacheco and Comerford for their advocacy, and said she hoped that the Senate working group could take leadership of the issue. In withdrawing his amendment 61, which would have had non-reimbursed amounts deducted for charter tuition, Senator Patrick O'Connor said he had hopes of the working group. Jehlen and Lewis also reminded the Senators that the Joint Committee on Education has a hearing Monday on bills relating to charter schools. 

Senator Cindy Friedman in advocating for amendment 40, which allowed for a local option reserve fund for recovery high schools, argued that "just like special ed, [these schools] are expensive." Communities need the option to have funds set aside for such schools. The amendment passed.

 A redrafted version of Senator Tarr's amendment 21, which directs the Mass School Building Authority to look at the use of their funds for lead, asbestos, and various other abatements, passed, as did an expansion of their cap to $800M. 

Senator Eric Lessor joined Senator Comerford in arguing that Proposition 2 1/2 specifically needed to be added to the items to be considered in the consideration of municipal wealth, observing that the towns with the highest tax rates are largely west of Worcester, and many are bumping their caps under Proposition 2 1/2. The amendment passed.

 Senator Becca Rausch's amendment calling specifically for representation of various groups of parents--those with children in special education, who are learning English, who are low income, or other representative subgroups--be considered and reported on in the section calling for parental engagement was merged with Senator Jehlen's amendment 17, which, as she described it "strengthes local accountability," requiring school committee approval of the plans to be submitted to the Department, and to consider recommendations from school councils, while maintaining the ability of the state to step in due to chronic underperformance. Lewis also noted that the amendment made even clearer that the Commissioner did not have the power to take funding away from school districts due to declarations of underperformance or chronic underperformance. The combined amendment passed.

Senator Vinny deMacedo argued for his amendment 34 which would have expanded the Commissioner's authority to intervene in districts by noting the significant amount of money involved in the bill. Senator Harriette Chandler responded that passing the amendment "represents gross overreach by our state government," that "districts like mine [of Worcester] need...a helping hand up, not a slap in the face." She said, "districts like mine are not chronically underperforming; they are chronically underfunded."  

 There were, over the course of deliberation, several discussions of regional school transporation reimbursement, including Senator Anne Gobi's amendment to remove the words "subject to appropriation" from the law, which failed, and Senator Tarr's flourishing of a bound copy of the laws, saying that the section requiring full reimbursement had not been withdrawn, but, in this bill, when it comes to regional school transportation reimbursement, "the page is still left blank." After a recess, Senator Tarr submitted a redraft of amendment 1, which directs the Department to study and report back on a number of underfunded items, including regional transportation reimbursement. The amendment passed.

Senator Michael Moore withdrew his amendment on studying the costs of free college after being told that Ways and Means is studying the issue and will be looking at costs.

Tarr argued at some length for amendment 6, which would phase in a hold harmless measure of $100/pupil. He cited the number of districts at hold harmless levels and argued that compartively the total amount required was small. Chang-Díaz rebutted this argument, saying "this bill should be--and I would argue IS--about changing the status quo" and that means doing things differently than in the past. She said, "there has been a flood of intentionality, and that is what this bill does; it spends each dollar in a needs-based way." The amendment failed on a 11-27 vote

O'Connor's amendment 59 requiring transparency in reporting out on implementation passed, as did a redraft of amendment 62 from Chang-Díaz, which directs the comptroller, in certifying the surplus in any year after 2023, to ensure that the obligations of funding the bill are met, and move funds accordingly before certifying the surplus if they are not. 

Amendment 64, changing the language of the Rural Schools' Commission to be less directive, was supported by Senators Adam Hinds and Senator Diane DiZiglio who argued that the changes will allow the commission to reach its own conclusions. 

Amendment 54 to ensure that implementation is done "in a consistent manner, including equitable increases to the foundation and increment amounts over the prior year" from Senator Chang-Díaz passed, as did amendment 68 from Senator Rodrigues on financial literacy.

The bill was ordered to a third reading, then passed, 39-0, on a roll call that was met with sustained applause.

The bill then passes to House Ways and Means and the House Committee on Third Reading. It is expected that the House will not take it up on Wednesday, October 9 due to Yom Kippur, but that it may take the bill up on Wednesday, October 16.