In a victory for a broad coalition of supporters of public education, the Massachusetts Legislature has enacted the Student Opportunity Act, a commitment by the Commonwealth to boost school funding by $1.5 billion targeted to high-need school districts. The law passed unanimously and was signed by Governor Charlie Baker on November 26.
Massachusetts’s school funding formula dates back to 1993, and was enacted to comply with the State Supreme Court ruling in the landmark McDuffy v. Secretary of Education case. Along with the formula, the Commonwealth established a Foundation Budget Review Commission (FBRC) charged with conducting periodic reviews of the funding formula to ensure its continuing effectiveness going forward.
In 2015, the FBRC reviewed the State budget and concluded the formula underfunded public education by at least $1 billion, impacting employee health costs and programs for English Language Learners, economically disadvantaged students and students with disabilities.
Despite this finding, the Legislature repeatedly failed to respond to need for increased funding documented by the FBRC.
In June 2019, parents in seven low-wealth school districts a filed a school funding lawsuit, Mussotte v. Peyser, to prompt legislative action. The lawsuit claimed that persistent underfunding deprived children of their right to an adequate education under the Massachusetts Constitution.
The lawsuit was supported by the Council for Fair School Finance, a statewide coalition for school funding reform whose members include AFT Massachusetts, the Boston Teachers Union, Citizens for Public Schools, Lawyers for Civil Rights, the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, and the New England Area Conference of the NAACP.
The coalition has been a consistent and forceful advocate for improving school funding. The filing of the Mussotte complaint brought to public attention the severe deficits in essential resources and education opportunities for vulnerable children, helping to spur the Legislature to substantially increase funding in the new law.
“The drumbeat for a change in our funding formula had been getting louder for years,” said Ira Fader, General Counsel of the Massachusetts Teachers Association and co-counsel in Mussotte. “We organized a broad coalition of allies under the banner ‘Fund our Future’ and organized endlessly. When the time seemed right to bring the lawsuit, we created a smaller group called the Coalition for Fair School Finance and filed a complaint under both the education and equal rights clause of the state Constitution. It became clear to the Legislature that there was no backing down.”
The Student Opportunity Act fully implements the FBRC recommendations. The law returns to a more accurate measure of student poverty and adjusts funding to reflect district poverty concentrations, increases funding for English Language Learners at varying grade levels, adjusts enrollment counts for students with disabilities to be more accurate, and updates calculations for employee health and pensions.
The law also commits to increasing state reimbursements to districts for charter tuition, rising to 100% reimbursement in three years. The loss of school funding to charter school expansion has been a major issue, fueling a grassroots campaign to defeat Question 2, a ballot measure funded by outside dark money groups to lift the charter cap.
This legislative victory is an important step in the ongoing campaign to ensure students’ constitutional rights remain prominent, paramount and fully protected. “With the new funding commitment enacted, our work shifts to ensuring future Legislatures carry out the new promises,” said Mr. Fader.
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