Student Opportunity Act still lacks accountability, data, reports claim

Metro Creative Graphics

By EDEN MOR

For the Athol Daily News

Published: 11-27-2023 5:08 PM

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Education Reform Act, a landmark piece of legislation that made the commonwealth a leader in education. It was deemed the “most dramatic change in generations” by Mitchell Chester, the then-commissioner of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, and has continued to receive overwhelming praise.

The law was largely a result of a report from the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, “Every Child a Winner,” which established a lasting framework for K-12 education in the commonwealth. The progressive legislation dramatically increased state funding into school districts, raised standards for students and teachers across the state, and pushed for accountability on the act’s goals, Chester wrote in a 2014 report.

But after years of excellence, issues began to arise with the 1993 bill’s original funding formula, with one 2015 news report citing a lack of funding for special education and school health insurance.

In response, Massachusetts legislators passed the Student Opportunity Act (SOA) in 2019, which was meant to renew funding from the Education Reform Act and address the state’s slow but significant fall from grace.

Now, four years into the implementation of the SOA, experts like Jamie Gass at Pioneer Institute, a public policy research center, suggest that the state of education in the commonwealth is on the precipice of chaos, partially due to some of the act’s failings.

“I think that on some level [SOA] ignores how Massachusetts got to be number one,” Gass said.

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Without means of accountability, Gass said it is hard to track whether the billion dollar investment in schools, brought about by the SOA is achieving what it was meant to.

“There was an enormous effort to put more money into the system,” Gass said of SOA. “And [the Legislature] thought that that alone would do it. I’m not sure that that’s going to end up proving to be the case.”

The American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts reported in 2019 that once fully phased in, SOA would provide $1.5 billion in annual public school aid over the span of seven years. However, many communities were expected to feel the effects of the legislation by the beginning of the 2020 school year.

Though SOA was met with widespread praise from the education community, the Massachusetts Teachers Association reported in 2020 that some parents were still skeptical.

“The funding promised by the Student Opportunity Act, as long as it reaches the classroom, will be transformative for students in Massachusetts. But legislative leaders have already predicted a difficult road ahead in fully funding this promise,” Denise DaPonte Mussotte told MTA.

Mussotte is the mother of four Fall River students who were plaintiffs in the Mussotte v. Peyser case, which alleged disparities in public school funding. Although the plaintiffs dropped the case against the state in 2020, Mussotte told MTA it’s important to keep a watchful eye on Beacon Hill as SOA enters its implementation stage.

Similarly, MassINC, a nonpartisan research center, wrote in 2021 “The Legislature hasn’t provided certainty that the state will make good on its promise to deliver the funds in equal increments over the law’s seven-year phase-in period. Lacking confidence that they will see these scheduled increases in Chapter 70 aid, school districts have been hesitant to develop plans to deploy the new funds strategically.”

While the SOA intended to renew the existing pool of funding for education, as established in the Education Reform Act, it also aimed to re-analyze the state’s funding formula. This addressed a variety of concerns from school districts and committees and refreshed a system that had not seen significant change since 1993.

Mary Tamer, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, said that under the state’s previous formula, there were widespread disparities in funding for lower-income districts.

“[SOA] was designed to help go where it was needed most to the kids and the districts that needed the money the most,” Tamer said.

But Tamer said, despite massive amounts of funding, students are still “really struggling,” highlighting some of the key issues in the SOA framework.

“I do think it’s unfortunate, though, that there were not more specific guidelines that are typically associated with education funding bills in terms of ‘what are the goals we hope to achieve by making this really significant investment in our students?’” Tamer said.

The Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, the statewide standardized test used to gauge proficiency among students in a variety of disciplines, indicated deep-rooted disparities, specifically in lower-income Massachusetts communities, in 2023 MCAS results.

The Massachusetts Education Trust reports that although test scores are seeing a general uptick as they recover from the 2020 pandemic-induced learning loss, this isn’t the case for underserved communities.

In 2022, the gap between the percentage of Black students meeting and exceeding grade level expectations and their white peers was 22 percentage points. In 2023, the gap grew to 24 percentage points, according to an Education Trust analysis.

The report further indicated that 27% of low-income 10th graders are meeting grade-level expectations in math, while their non low-income counterparts are up to 66%.

“There is still much work to do to support all students, especially systemically underserved student groups,” the Education Trust wrote.

The Boston Globe wrote in 2020 that although school districts in the state were becoming more diverse, “highest-achieving school systems remain highly segregated, by any reasonable measure.” A report from Beyond Test Scores Project and the Center for Education and Civil Rights says this means there are tens of thousands of students in the commonwealth learning in “racially isolated environments.”

Doug Howgate, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, said it has begun to gather data on a report that would ensure the SOA is on track. He expects it to be released by the end of this year, or the beginning of the next.

“The money’s got to be in service of something,” Howgate said. “Have the resources gone where they were supposed to go thus far?”

Howgate said it is particularly important to track the progress of SOA now that we are halfway through its seven-year implementation period.

“This was a huge financial undertaking for the commonwealth. But it’s also more than that. It’s a huge investment of time for the state and communities,” Howgate said. “Oftentimes, you’ll hear people either want to see results overnight, which that’s not realistic, or they say ‘it’s too hard to measure.’”

If Massachusetts can’t answer these questions soon, Howgate said, there’s the potential for a lot of wasted time, money and effort on behalf of the state and local communities.

But when it comes to fixing SOA’s shortcomings, Tamer said the answer lies in collecting this crucial data, but also within building statewide consensus.

“We really haven’t seen anything tangible by way of results at this point in time,” she said.

Tamer cited that less than 50% of children in grades three to eight are reading at grade level. Democrats for Education Reform is pushing for a return to phonics and research-based instruction when it comes to reading.

“You would not believe the amount of pushback people have to something as simple as research-based evidence that tells us exactly how students learn to read. Even when you try to do the right thing for kids, there are adults who will speak up and say, ‘No, we don’t want to do that,’” Tamer said.

She added that the reading crisis is part of a larger issue in Massachusetts, which is the state’s steadfast adherence to the “status quo.”

“The fact that there’s any resistance to changing this dynamic is astonishing,” Tamer said.

However, Gass said that the COVID-19 pandemic, and its drastic impact on education, has further intensified the situation, leaving countless questions unanswered and making it difficult to track the implementation of SOA.

“School districts are flush with money,” Gass explained

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government granted Massachusetts nearly $2.6 billion for education as a part of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. However, only $1.5 billion has been claimed, according to the commonwealth website.

The reason schools haven’t used the whole fund is because of supply chain issues, labor shortages and drawn-out community processes, according to the Boston Globe. The funding is set to expire in September 2024. Schools, such as Atlantis Charter in Fall River have spent 96% of their allocated funds, meanwhile, districts others such as Quincy have spent as little as 17% as of 2022, according to the Massachusetts Federal Funds Office.

“There’s a lot of money rolling around and it is going to have to be marshaled in a very intelligent way to address learning loss and the 10 years of decline that was occurring before COVID,” Gass said.

Gass likens the state of education in the commonwealth to the quarterback of a successful football team, who is so accustomed to winning, that they struggle to accept loss.

“Massachusetts is kind of stuck in this pattern of spending lots of money, but not really wanting to hold districts accountable,” Gass said. “There’s kind of this complacency that settled in. And it’s gonna be tough.”

Eden Mor writes for the Athol Daily News from the Boston University Statehouse Program.