As House and Senate lawmakers on Beacon Hill put finishing touches on landmark education funding legislation, one critical issue has yet to be resolved: Should Massachusetts’ Department of Elementary and Secondary Education be able to influence how school districts use the substantial increase in state funding?
We strongly believe DESE must play a robust role in ensuring that the Student Opportunity Act’s $1.5 billion investment impacts the learning experiences and outcomes of the substantial number of students who continue to be underserved in Massachusetts schools.
We know the power of education firsthand. Education saved both of our lives. As a child who lost both parents to illness before age 12, rich educational experiences in New York City public schools with outstanding, caring educators made all the difference to John. For Chynah, comprehensive educational options in Boston, along with trauma-informed environments and student accountability systems, provided a pathway to success after losing a central family member to gun violence in the fifth grade. And it was, in fact, in a school where we first met — one a student and the other her principal.
Between us, we have spent decades fighting for educational justice in districts both in Massachusetts and across the country. One critical lesson from this work is that improving opportunity and outcomes for historically underserved students — students of color, students from low-income families, English learners and students with disabilities — often necessitates difficult changes in the hearts and minds of adults. It compels changes in the ways schools and districts use resources, and in educators’ day-to-day practices. Another is that — due to both capacity challenges and local politics — such changes rarely happen without outside pressure and support. Ensuring that additional funding leads to improved learning experiences for underserved students requires the right balance of local flexibility with state oversight.
The Massachusetts House of Representatives’ version of the Student Opportunity Act strikes this balance. It gives districts ample leeway in how to use additional funding to advance student outcomes. But it also charges DESE with setting goals for addressing disparities in student achievement, reviewing district plans to ensure they meet the bill’s requirements, and requiring modifications where necessary.
In a state with some of the biggest inequities in educational quality, such state oversight is critical. Today, underserved students in Massachusetts get less of every kind of resource critical to student success. They are less likely than their peers to have access to rigorous learning opportunities, both formal — like accelerated and AP classes — and informal — such as quality assignments. They are less likely to be taught by the state’s more effective teachers or by teachers who look like them. They are more likely to face harsh disciplinary actions that reduce their time in class without receiving key social-emotional supports — like access to school counselors — that they need to thrive.
The latest National Assessment of Educational Progress results are just one example of the consequences of these disparities. In all four subjects/grades tested on NAEP, Massachusetts’ proficiency rates for students from low-income backgrounds fell below 30 percent — half the rates of their higher income peers. In both reading and math, proficiency rates for black and Latinx eighth graders hovered around 25 percent — again, half the rates for their white peers. Furthermore, the state’s performance declined in every subject and grade tested on NAEP at rates higher than national averages, often with bigger declines for students from low-income families than for their higher income peers.
The funding commitments in the Student Opportunity Act are critical to turning these patterns around. But it is how new dollars are used that will ultimately determine whether Massachusetts can shift from being No. 1 for some in education to No. 1 for all. Local educators and education leaders in collaboration with families and community advocates should drive educational improvement efforts, including identifying the right evidence-based strategies for their students. But when district capacity is lacking, or when local politics get in the way, DESE must have the power to give students who have too long been underserved in the Commonwealth the opportunities they deserve to succeed.
John B. King is president and CEO of the Education Trust. He served as US secretary of education in the Obama administration. State Representative Chynah Tyler is a member of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education.