In Op-eds & columns
DEAR JO: I’ve heard a lot about the education bill that just passed the Senate. Is this really a big deal? What does it mean for western Massachusetts?
— Constituents from across the district

DEAR ALL: I’m departing from my usual response to one person. That’s because I received many calls, emails, and visits focused on S.2350, the Student Opportunity Act — a watershed education bill that the Senate passed 39-0 on Oct. 3. Rather than focusing on just one person’s question, I wanted this column to be a celebration of our region’s collective work to create and pass that bill, while also giving us a sense of how far we still need to go.For the most part, the Student Opportunity Act is about targeted funding to close stubborn opportunity gaps for commonwealth students living in disproportionately low-income communities. Creating opportunity equity should be the state’s job, but the state has fallen way short when it comes to education.

Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz said recently, “This isn’t a game-changer for a minimum aid city like Northampton, but it’s the right thing to do for our commonwealth and will benefit us all in the long run.” The mayor’s correct.

The state’s current educational funding system is based on a framework passed in the early 90s. For years, the Legislature and governor tried to update the underlying funding formulas, but it took people flooding the State House and packing hearing rooms to finally make it happen. Propelled by this great organizing, the Student Opportunity Act would invest around $1.5 billion in new state funding to cities and towns for K-12 education. The funds would reflect increased local costs for health care, special education and English language learners. Additionally, schools with a higher percentage of children living in poverty would get significantly more funding per student. Funds would also be increased for school-based mental health services, charter school tuition mitigation, and for school renovation and construction.

I’m glad that this bill reflects a number of priorities which tireless constituents in our Hampshire, Franklin, Worcester district raised with me, and also shared directly with the chairs of the Education Committee at an event which I co-hosted with House members in Northampton last April.

How constituents helped

Here are just a few of the ways constituent ideas and proposals shaped this bill with an eye toward our district:

  • Rural and declining enrollment schools. Some of our districts are losing students as the populations of Hampshire and Franklin counties stagnate or decline. Under the existing system, fewer kids means less funding. But many fixed costs don’t decrease. The bill includes language to direct new innovation funds to rural schools and those with declining enrollment. This provision is based on a bill I introduced with Rep. Natalie Blais. It 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.
  • School construction projects: The current school construction program provides more assistance for projects in cities and towns with higher poverty levels, up to an 80 percent reimbursement rate. There are also bonus points available — extra reimbursements for schools designed with high energy efficiency or other best practices.
  • The problem is that under current law, communities at or near the 80 percent cap don’t get to take advantage of the bonus points. Rep. Mindy Domb and I introduced a bill to fix this problem and then I was able to work with the chair of the Education Committee to insert language into the final bill to direct the state to find ways to fund best practices for all while also considering how to increase the per square foot reimbursement that all towns receive to build 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 even though they have some of the highest tax rates in the commonwealth. An amendment I filed, which was adopted by the Senate, directs the state to study the impact of Prop 2½ on the ability of communities to fund education. That work would be part of a larger mandate in the bill which directs state agencies to examine how towns are expected to fund schools more generally. Here, again, constituents have been sounding the alarm about the current funding inequities which place a larger burden on smaller, less wealthy western Massachusetts 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 educate high-needs students. This is particularly necessary for western Massachusetts because our districts can pay upward of $100,000 or more to transport a student to an out-of-district placement to meet their education needs. Helping to fund special education transportation is a regional equity imperative.
  • 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 in recent years, the state has reneged on this promise. The bill affirms a commitment to fully fund the current charter tuition mitigation formula.

I also worked with Senate colleagues and the Senate president to create a charter working group which will look more deeply at related issues because right now, tensions between charter and district schools play out at the local level. I believe it’s the state’s responsibility to improve educational opportunities for all students. And I have long said that, as a representative of the state, I can and should be on the hook to help make sure the set up and the outcomes are fair.

Disappointment

My biggest disappointment with the bill is that we did not sufficiently confront the rising costs of special education. Funding under current law assumes that 15 percent of students require special education services. The bill increases that assumption to 16 percent. Yet this increase does not come close to meeting the needs in our schools. Twenty out of the 24 communities in our district have special education rates that exceed even the new percentage.

Additionally, the state currently assumes that each student receiving special education services needs about one quarter of a teacher’s time each day. Talking with school superintendents has helped me understand this assumption also misses the mark. Although the Senate was unwilling to go beyond the assumption increase provided in S. 2350, I plan to file legislation to help make sure we return to this issue.

Lastly, as you might imagine, I backed efforts to increase regional school transportation to the promised 100 percent amount. That also did not prevail, but you can bet colleagues and I will fight for this again in the supplemental budget which will move later this fall.

The House is next, starting from the same basic bill that we did in the Senate. I wish my colleagues well as they take up this important issue.

State Sen. Jo Comerford represents 160,000 people living in 24 cities and towns in the Hampshire, Franklin, Worcester district in the Massachusetts Legislature.

Read this article at the Daily Hampshire Gazette

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Opinions and columns: legislator commentary by Jo ComerfordOpinions and columns: legislator commentary by Jo Comerford