Officials, Bourque Hail Landmark Education Bill

Longstanding money troubles in the Chelsea Public Schools look to be something of the past after Gov. Charlie Baker signed off on a landmark education funding bill last week – legislation known as the Student Opportunity Act.

This week, Sen. Sal DiDomenico – who has labored tirelessly to pass some form of education funding reform over the past five years – along with State Rep. Dan Ryan and Supt. Mary Bourque said the bill was historic and would be everything Chelsea needed to fix its budget problems.

“It’s a home run; it’s everything we were looking for and wanted and the timeline is good because it ramps up to over a seven-year period for funding,” he said. “The commitment financially is significant. These numbers that will be coming are game-changing for Everett, Boston and Chelsea. The signing of this bill will be a day we look back on and say it was a day that all children were guaranteed an opportunity to succeed. This was historic. It really was. It’s something that we’ve all been wanting for a very, very long time…After today, no longer will your zip code be a hindrance to getting the resources you need to get a great education.”

Bourque – who sat on the same panel five years ago with DiDomenico – said she has not quit smiling since the Nov. 26 signing.

“We always talk about 1993 education reform and the inflow of money and how historic it was, but now we’ll be talking about the 2019 Student Opportunity Act and the investment of money from it,” she said. “More than the money, though, it’s a value statement. There is a moral imperative our entire State Legislature got behind. When you have all the legislators making a value statement with each of their votes, it’s historic. I’m still smiling and so proud of the moral imperative for education that everyone got behind…When you know what is right in life, you fight for what is right.”

State Rep. Dan Ryan said the bill will solve a lot of the issues that have plagued Chelsea for years in its school system.

“Chelsea, along with other Gateway Cities, had been disproportionately underfunded by the old formula,” he said. “This bill will go a long way in addressing some of those disparities. Increased funding for English learner students and other programs that particularly effect urban districts will also help close the achievement gap between urban and suburban districts. I also, want congratulate and thank Superintendent Bourque for her steadfast advocacy over the years, both at the State House and in the neighborhood, she never failed to seize the opportunity to push for an education bill from the legislature. The case she made for Chelsea schools helped pave the way for this bill to become a reality.”

That praise for Bourque was echoed by DiDomenico – who said she had become the standard-bearer on Beacon Hill for the education funding reform effort in the past five years.

“Mary Bourque was invaluable in working with the Legislature,” he said. “She is a leader in the state  and I can’t say enough how respected she is at the State House. Everyone looks to her to validate what we’re doing up there. She does her homework and knows how everything intertwines and intersects.”

The bill was signed at Boston’s English High School on Nov. 26 with numerous dignitaries and elected officials in attendance. After the bill passed both the House and Senate last month, there was quite a question mark as to whether Baker would sign it. That all changed last week when he made the plans to sign it at English High.

“I am pleased to sign legislation aimed at providing students across the Commonwealth with the opportunities and resources they need to succeed including accountability measures that are essential to supporting underperforming schools,” said Governor Charlie Baker. “This funding builds on the over half a billion dollars in new Chapter 70 funding our Administration has supported since taking office. We thank our partners in the Legislature for their hard work and we look forward to implementing this legislation for every child in every school district in Massachusetts.”

The bill has had many attempts at passage, but failed on a number of occasions for various reasons. DiDomenico – who started his journey serving on a diverse education funding committee almost five years – said it succeeded this time because everyone was on board and no one had to vote against their best interests.

“There were no loopholes or things that made it hard because members had to vote against their community,” he said. “The vote was unanimous. Even the governor couldn’t go against it. This is unprecedented that everyone who voted on the bill, all the unions, all the School Committees, and all the superintendents – everyone was on the same page due to how important this bill was. It was very, very unusual.”

Over the next seven years, the state has committed to investing $1.5 billion into public education, and with inflation factored in, about $2 billion. The plan will roll out with increases in the Chapter 70 education formula increasing – in addition to other things within the bill that will increase funding.

In Chelsea, it is estimated that by year seven, more than $75 million will be coming into the district due to the landmark legislation. The numbers are not yet fixed, and they will be incremental, but eclipsing $75 million is expected for the Chelsea Public Schools.

But beyond the typical Chapter 70 state education money, Chelsea will also benefit from other fixes in the bill. That included fully funding the Charter School reimbursements to the district.

By state law, a district is reimbursed for any student that leaves the public school for a charter school. Those reimbursements are 100 percent funding in the first year, and then 25 percent of the funding for five years after. The state had been reimbursing districts, but not at the full level required by the law.

Additionally, school districts will see increased reimbursements for transporting students to out-of-district special education placements. It also raises a cap on state funding for school building projects by $150 million from $600 million to $750 million; and creates a grant fund for innovative educational approaches.​​

A major promise in the bill for Chelsea and other Gateway Cities is the call to solve the problem with undercounting low-income students – known now as economically disadvantaged. For the past four or five years, such students in Chelsea were not fully counted, and that resulted in the loss of millions of dollars in school funding. The problem came in that the criteria for determining economically disadvantaged didn’t fit many of the students in Chelsea – resulting in many low-income students not being counted and resourced appropriate in the schools.

Within the bill, the fix to the problem is called for by the Fiscal Year 2022 budget – which is about 18 months away. The upcoming budget year, Fiscal Year 2021, will feature a temporary funding fix for the problem, but a permanent fix will be identified by a task force and implemented the following year.

“That was a change that really hit Gateway Cities like Everett and Chelsea – and the plan to fix it is in the final bill so we will have an accurate count of all economically disadvantaged kids in the district,” DiDomenico said. “We have had amendments to fix it the last two years for the Senate, but never a permanent fix. This has the fix so that there will no longer be a gap between what we have and what is counted. That’s a big part of why the funding numbers jump so high in Everett and Chelsea.”

Money is expected to start coming down to the districts next year in the Fiscal Year 2021 Budget, which Gov. Baker is expected to file sometime in late January or early February. Each year will see things grow incrementally until year seven hits the full amount promised.

“The ramp up with this bill fill start showing up in next year’s budget,” said DiDomenico. “The amount we’ve talked about for the district will be out in year seven, but every year leading up to it will see big increases. Many have asked me when they’ll start seeing money come into the district. The answer is it starts next year.”

That said, the education funding money doesn’t just roll into Everett come what may. There are strict accountability measurements that are required to get the full funding. If students don’t perform well, not all of the funding will be delivered.

The bill requires school districts to develop three-year plans to close achievement gaps using evidence-based programs and supports, such as expanded learning time, increased counseling and psychological services, professional development, expanded early learning and pre-kindergarten, early college and career readiness pathways, and a more diverse teacher workforce.

The Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education will establish statewide targets for addressing persistent achievement gaps among student groups, and will review each district’s plan to ensure it sets measurable goals for student improvement, with credible strategies for achieving them. Districts must amend any plan deemed by the Commissioner not to conform with these standards.

The bill also requires the Secretary of Education to collect data on student preparedness for college and career success by school district and high school, including student participation rates in college and career readiness programs, college acceptance and graduation rates, as well as the percentage of students in internships and earning industry-recognized credentials.

DiDomenico concluded by saying it will be important to make sure the funding program isn’t derailed by economic downturns or other budget priorities. At the moment, he said everyone is on board with that.

“The House and Senate are on record saying the one thing that won’t be lost if there are ebbs and flows in the economy is education,” he said. “We are committed to making sure education is held harmless for funding.”

Said Bourque, “If the last five years have taught us anything, it is to be relentless and determined – scrappy Chelsea people who accept only the best for our children.”

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