By Lew Finfer
Special to the Reporter
Last Thursday, the Legislature announced agreement on the Student Opportunity Act ‚ which will increase funding for students in cities by something like $4,000 per pupil over the next seven years. It will also significantly help English Language Learners and children with special needs
I’m still stunned that such an incredibly positive bill for students from cities across the state will now be passed by the Legislature. It will help the Boston Public Schools’ budget with reimbursements for charter school costs. It offers a better, more inclusive income definition for poor children. It requires each school system to develop a three-year plan to lower the achievement gap between students of color and white students, which is very high in our state.
There was a need to act. The education funding formula had not had a major update since the 1993 Educational Reform Act. The state had fallen over $1 billion behind on meeting commitments to Chapter 70 Local Aid payments to cities and towns over the last 13 years.
The commitment to make a $1.4 billion increase over seven years, above and beyond inflation, is massive. There are many ways to increase educational opportunity and learning for students: More staff to spend more time with students who are behind on reading and math, smaller class sizes, longer school days, and/or after school and summer programs, more clinicians and social workers, enhanced drop-out prevention and recovery, to name some.
With this bill’s major increase in funding, schools will be able to undertake a significant number of these proven initiatives. Suburbs have been able to spend so many thousands more per pupil than cities and these changes will enable more opportunity for city students and lower income students anywhere.
How did this happen? Like anything big and involving the Legislature, the governor, and many impacted organizations, this was not uncomplicated. The chairs of the Education Committee, Representative Alice Peisch and Senator Jason Lewis did the most direct negotiations on the bill. Both House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka backed the bill as crucial and appeared at a Thursday press conference on the legislation. And more than 100 state legislators co-sponsored the Promise Act bill, which had as lead sponsors, Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz (D-Boston) Representative Mary Keefe (D-Worcester), and Representative Aaron Vega (D-Holyoke).
Many rank and file legislators had to have stepped up to tell the House and Senate leadership they wanted a strong bill. All legislators who did so deserve thanks. The governor also said something had to be done on education, though he proposed a far, far smaller funding increase than was passed by the Legislature.
Beyond the State House, the statewide teachers unions, Massachusetts Teachers Association and American Federation of Teachers, along with the Boston Teachers Union organized thousands of teachers, paraprofessionals, and allies in community groups to meet and call legislators and organize rallies. The unions stood for the needs of their students as being the most important issue. Community groups in cities across the state did this, too, including the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance and others. I’m proud that our group, the Massachusetts Communities Action Network and our affiliated organizations in the Gateway Cities also did a share of this organizing work.
Ultimately, it was a combination of legislators and organizations and adding in the cumulative work done this past year to work in previous years. The Massachusetts Constitution, written 228 years ago by John Adams and Samuel Adams, actually said that it was a “duty of the Legislature to cherish the interests of our public schools”. We saw some “cherishing” going on in this effort.
Lew Finfer is a Dorchester resident and co-Director of the Dorchester-based Massachusetts Communities Action Network.