In Op-Eds & Columns, Updates from Jo

On Oct. 3, the Massachusetts Senate unanimously passed S.2350, the Student Opportunity Act — a watershed education bill.

I ran for the Senate so that I could fight for a reinvestment in our schools. S.2350 is a leap in the right direction. The bill targets funds to close opportunity gaps for the commonwealth’s students.

Our current system is based on a framework passed in the early ’90s. For years, the Legislature tried to update the underlying funding formulas, but it took people-powered advocacy to make it happen.

S.2350 proposes to invest $1.5 billion in new state funding for K-12 education. The funds reflect increased local costs for health care, special education, and English language learners. Schools with a higher percentage of children living in poverty get significantly more funding per student. There are also promised funds for school-based mental health services, charter school tuition mitigation, and school buildings.

Here are just a few of the ways constituent demands shaped this bill:

■ Rural and declining enrollment schools: Some districts are losing students. Under the existing system, fewer kids means less funding. But many fixed costs don’t decrease. The bill directs new innovation funds to rural schools and those with declining enrollment. This provision is based on a bill I introduced with Rep. Natalie Blais. The bill also establishes a rural schools commission which will examine many of the issues raised by constituents surrounding rural, regional, and low and declining enrollment schools. I joined Senators Adam Hinds to strengthen this provision.

■ School construction projects: The current school construction program provides more assistance for projects in districts with higher poverty levels, up to an 80 percent reimbursement rate. There are also bonus points available — extra reimbursements for schools designed with known best practices. The problem is that communities at or near the 80 percent cap cannot take advantage of these bonus points. Rep. Mindy Domb and I introduced a bill to fix this problem and then I worked to insert language into the final bill to direct the state to find ways to fund these best practices for all, while also considering an increase in the per square foot reimbursement that all towns receive to build or renovate a school.

■ The impact of Proposition 2½: Because of the limits which Prop 2½ imposes on local taxation, combined with slower growing local economies, many of our region’s towns are struggling to make the educational investments required by law. I filed an amendment, adopted by the Senate, that directs the state to study Prop 2½. That work will be part of a larger mandate which directs state agencies to examine how towns are expected to fund schools more generally. Western Massachusetts constituents have sounded the alarm about the current funding inequities which place a much larger burden on smaller, less wealthy rural towns.

■ Special education transit in the Circuit Breaker: The bill will put special education transportation into what’s called the Circuit Breaker, which is a fund to address steep costs related to educating high-needs students. This is a regional equity imperative because of our extremely high transportation costs.

■ Charter school funding: Municipalities pay the tuition for students from their districts who attend charter schools. The state is supposed to make up some of those costs for the first three years after a student leaves a district school for a charter school, but has largely reneged on this promise. The bill affirms a commitment to fully fund the current charter tuition mitigation formula. I also worked with the Senate president to create a working group which will look more deeply at related issues.

My biggest disappointment is that the bill does not sufficiently confront the rising costs of special education. Current law assumes 15 percent of students require special education services. The bill increases that assumption to 16 percent. Yet 20 of the 24 communities in our district have special education rates that exceed even the new percentage.

Moreover, the state currently assumes that each student receiving special education services requires one quarter of a teacher’s time. School superintendents have helped me understand this assumption also misses the mark. The Senate was unwilling to adopt the amendment I filed to address this so I’m filing legislation to make sure we return to this issue. Shout out to Kathy Reinig from Orange, who has led the way on this issue. When filed, this will be forever the “Orange” bill in her honor.

Lastly, I joined Sen. Anne Gobi to back efforts to raise regional school transportation to the promised 100 percent amount. That also did not prevail, but you can bet colleagues and I will continue this fight.

The House is next, starting from the same basic legislation. I wish my colleagues well as they take up this game-changer of a bill.

Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, represents 24 cities and towns in Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester counties.

Read this column in the Greenfield Recorder

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