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Schools in low-income communities across Massachusetts will receive an influx of cash to raise educational quality this year, as the landmark Student Opportunity Act is funded for the first time.
The money will make the biggest difference in cities such as Chelsea, Lynn, and Lawrence with relatively low tax bases where most school funding comes from the state; Brockton, for example, will see smaller classes, more 4-year-olds in public preschool, and a return of middle-school football.
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 act also increases money for special education students and English language learners.
But some education advocates worry that unwise spending could undermine the act’s ambitious goal — to close achievement gaps affecting students with disabilities, students of color, English learners, and low-income students. Meanwhile, many school districts receiving the cash say they first need to restore the essentials that were lost during years of cutbacks before they can dream too big.
“It’s a game changer,” said Brockton Superintendent Mike Thomas, whose district has had to cut 300 teachers since 2013 due to financial shortfalls. “Having this money to start to build back the district is exciting.”
The Student Opportunity Act led to an additional $220 million, increasing the state’s total to $5.5 billion for local schools in the coming fiscal year. School funding makes up 11 percent of the state’s $48.1 billion budget. That infusion combined with one-time federal COVID-19 relief aid totaling $1.8 billion means struggling school systems have a rare chance to reimagine education.
“Massachusetts has a unique opportunity unmatched to anywhere in the country,” said Ed Lambert, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education. “We’ve got to buy something different than the status quo with this really generational opportunity to close achievement gaps.”
Massachusetts has long been recognized as a top-ranking state on key national academic assessments, but large gaps exist between student groups. For example, fewer than one-third of Black and Latino fourth-graders read at grade level in 2017, less than half the rate for white students, data show.
Part of the reason behind the disparities is that schools in wealthier communities spend far more money than those in low-income cities due to higher local tax revenues, said Colin Jones, senior policy analyst with the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.
State funding makes up a smaller fraction of school budgets in affluent 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 education expenses in lower-income communities like Lawrence, Holyoke, and Revere, which typically spend $13,000 to $15,000 per student.
The Student Opportunity Act is one of the most progressive school funding formulas in the country because it recognizes that concentrated poverty adds challenges to learning, so poorer communities receive far more money than wealthier ones, Jones said.
Such funding structures are “appropriate, but in practice, for legislatures around the country, it’s been very hard to get that done,” Jones said. “In Massachusetts, this is us potentially leading the country — that’s a big deal.”
The 2019 law came after years of political wrangling amid pressure from educational equity advocates. The estimated $1.5 billion in new funding was to be phased in over seven years, but the Legislature and Governor Charlie Baker delayed last year’s implementation due to pandemic-related economic uncertainty. Now, state officials increased spending to return to the original schedule for full funding, which is expected to be sustained afterward.
“This will allow public schools in communities that have struggled to now have the resources and staffing that all students deserve,” said state Senator Jason Lewis, a Winchester Democrat and co-chair of the Legislature’s education committee. “We’ll start to see benefits in the near-term, the current school year, and then in terms of improved outcomes for students, I think we’ll see that over time.”
The law requires school districts to submit plans for shrinking achievement gaps, including evidence-based strategies such as expanding early literacy, career education, advanced courses, and learning time. The state and districts also must publish goals and their progress. But school districts won’t face removal of funding if they don’t deploy proven methods or see results.
The districts that will see the largest bumps in annual state funding this year are: Springfield ($26 million); Brockton ($23 million); Lawrence ($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.
The districts’ spending plans were largely completed prior to the pandemic, so they don’t consider the needs of students hit hardest by the pandemic or the federal relief funds. That worries education advocates, who fear years from now, the same disparities in achievement will remain.
“The plans were really not targeting the things we know are most effective in addressing the achievement gap,” said Keri Rodrigues, president of Massachusetts Parents United. “We’re not seeing them reach high enough or be aggressive enough or urgent enough. ... We’re wasting literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
After urging by Rodrigues’ group and the business alliance, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in June issued new guidance and asked school districts to resubmit their plans, given the new circumstances. The advocates hope officials reject plans that don’t include proven strategies.
Many low-income school districts say they’re starting from a deficit due to their reliance on state funding, which they say for years didn’t keep up with rising costs, especially in employee health care.
In Chelsea, the new funds mean a 7-percent budget increase, allowing the district to reinstate key jobs slashed in recent years including science, math, literacy, special education, and bilingual teachers.
“The Student Opportunity Act is more restorative of those things that were lost over those years of cuts and we’re really trying to focus the [federal pandemic aid] funding on things we thought would strategically help address learning loss,” said Monica Lamboy, Chelsea Public Schools’ executive director of administration and finance.
Brockton plans to fund academic needs such as doubling the number of full-day prekindergarten classrooms, shrinking class sizes by about five students, and increasing teacher training and after-school tutoring. But enrichment is also important, Thomas said, as it helps students build relationships and enjoy school. Middle school sports were cut five years ago, but now nearly 1,000 middle-schoolers can participate in newly competitive football, soccer, softball, track, basketball, and baseball teams.
“We had a lot of work to do in closing the achievement gap before COVID, and now post-COVID that gap has gotten wider,” Thomas said. “But this Student Opportunity Act is really going to help.”
Naomi Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.