Low-income school districts receive “game changer” funding from the Student Opportunity Act. Will the success gaps finally narrow?
The Student Opportunity Act nearly doubles the state funding that the state’s poorest communities receive for each low-income student, from $ 4,600 to $ 8,800 per child. The law also increases money for special education students and English language learners.
But some education advocates fear that reckless spending will undermine the law’s ambitious goal – closing the achievement gaps affecting students with disabilities, students of color, English learners and low-income students. Meanwhile, many school districts receiving the money say they must first restore the essentials that have been lost during years of cutbacks before they can dream too big.
“This is a game-changer,” said Brockton Superintendent Mike Thomas, whose district has had to cut 300 teachers since 2013 due to financial problems. “Having that money to start rebuilding the neighborhood is exciting. “
The Student Opportunity Act generated an additional $ 220 million, bringing the state’s total to $ 5.5 billion for local schools in the next fiscal year. Funding for schools represents 11% of the state’s $ 48.1 billion budget. This infusion combined with one-time federal emergency aid for COVID-19 totaling $ 1.8 billion means struggling school systems have a rare chance to reinvent education.
“Massachusetts has a unique opportunity unparalleled in the country,” said Ed Lambert, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education. “We have to buy something different from the status quo with this truly generational opportunity to bridge the achievement gaps. “
Massachusetts has long been recognized as a top state in major national academic assessments, but large gaps exist between student groups. For example, less than a third of black and Latino fourth-graders were reading at grade level in 2017, less than half the rate of white students, according to the data.
Part of the reason behind the disparities is that schools in richer communities spend significantly more money than schools in low-income cities because of higher local tax revenues, said Colin Jones, senior policy analyst in Massachusetts. Budget and Policy Center.
State funding is a smaller fraction of school budgets in wealthy cities like Newton, Wellesley and Cambridge, which spend $ 20,000 to $ 30,000 per student, Jones said, but the state funds the vast majority of spending. education in low-income communities like Lawrence, Holyoke and Revere, which typically spend between $ 13,000 and $ 15,000 per student.
The Student Opportunity Act is one of the most progressive school funding formulas in the country, as it recognizes that concentrated poverty adds challenges to learning, so poorer communities receive far more money than they do. the richest, Jones said.
Such funding structures are “appropriate, but in practice for legislatures across the country it has been very difficult to achieve this,” Jones said. “In Massachusetts, we’re potentially leading the country – that’s a big deal.”
The 2019 law came after years of political wrangling under pressure from education equity advocates. The new funding estimated at $ 1.5 billion was to be phased in over seven years, but the Legislature and Governor Charlie Baker delayed last year’s implementation due to economic uncertainty. to the pandemic. Now state officials have increased their spending to return to the original full funding schedule, which should be maintained thereafter.
“This will allow public schools in struggling communities now to have the resources and staff that all students deserve,” said State Senator Jason Lewis, Democrat of Winchester and co-chair of the committee. education of the Legislative Assembly. “We’ll start to see benefits in the short term, in the current school year, and then in terms of improving student outcomes, I think we’ll see that over time. “
School districts are required by law to submit plans to reduce achievement gaps, including evidence-based strategies such as expanding early literacy, career education, advanced courses, and time to work. ‘learning. The state and districts must also publish the goals and their progress. But school districts won’t face the cut of funding if they don’t deploy proven methods or see results.
The districts that will see the largest increases in annual state funding this year are: Springfield ($ 26 million); Brockton ($ 23 million); Laurent ($ 15 million); Lynn ($ 14 million); Worcester ($ 13.7 million); Lowell ($ 11.6 million); Chelsea ($ 9 million); and Fall River ($ 8 million), according to an analysis by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education.
District spending plans were largely completed before the pandemic, so they do not take into account the needs of students hardest hit by the pandemic or federal relief funds. This worries defenders of education, who fear in years, the same disparities of success will stay.
“The plans really weren’t targeting the things that we know were most effective in closing the success gap,” said Keri Rodrigues, president of Massachusetts Parents United. “We don’t see them reaching high enough or being aggressive enough or urgent enough. … We are literally wasting a once in a lifetime opportunity.
After urging the Rodrigues group and the business alliance, the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education issued new guidelines in June and asked school districts to resubmit their plans, given the new circumstances. Advocates hope officials will reject plans that do not include proven strategies.
Many low-income school districts say they are starting from a deficit because of their reliance on government funding, which they say has not kept up with rising costs for years, especially in employee health care.
In Chelsea, the new funds mean a 7% budget increase, allowing the district to restore key jobs cut in recent years, including science, math, literacy, special education and bilingual teachers.
“The Student Opportunity Act is more restorative of those things that have been lost in these years of cuts and we are really trying to focus the [federal pandemic aid] funding on things we thought would strategically help tackle learning loss, ”said Monica Lamboy, executive director of administration and finance for Chelsea Public Schools.
Brockton plans to fund academic needs such as doubling the number of full-time preschool classes, reducing class sizes by about five students, and increasing teacher training and after-school tutoring. But enrichment is also important, Thomas said, because it helps students build relationships and enjoy school. College sports were phased out five years ago, but now nearly 1,000 college students can compete in the newly competitive soccer, football, softball, track, basketball and baseball teams.
“We had a lot of work to do to close the success gap before COVID, and now after COVID that gap has widened,” Thomas said. “But this student opportunity law will really help.”
Naomi Martin can be reached at [email protected]