On October 4, the Senate unanimously passed the Student Opportunity Act, a comprehensive piece of legislation that would make a new $1.5 billion investment in public education, modernizing the K-12 funding and policy landscape in several important ways.

To maximize the impact of new funding in improving student outcomes and closing opportunity gaps, the bill establishes the 21st Century Education Trust Fund to provide flexible funding to districts and schools pursuing innovative approaches to student learning and district improvement. Administered by the commissioner of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) in consultation with a 21st Century Education Advisory Council established through the bill, the trust would receive annual appropriations from the legislature, in addition to public and private funding and earned interest, and would primarily be allocated towards supporting the 21st Century Education Program.

The Student Opportunity Act outlines the 21st Century Education Trust Fund, Advisory Council, and Education Program as follows:

Section 16. (a) There shall be a Twenty-First Century Education Program to address persistent disparities in achievement among student subgroups, improve educational opportunities for all students, share best practices for improving classroom learning and support efficiencies within and across school districts. The commissioner may expend funds from the Twenty-First Century Education Trust Fund established in section 35MMM of chapter 10 for this program.

(b) There shall be a Twenty-First Century Education Advisory Council. The advisory council shall consist of: 4 members to be appointed by the governor; 1 member to be appointed by the president of the senate; and 1 member to be appointed by the speaker of the house of representatives. The members of the advisory council shall have diverse expertise with demonstrated success in at least 1 of the following areas: (i) addressing disparities in achievement among student subgroups; (ii) serving as educator or administrator in a school with a high percentage of low-income students; (iii) improving educational outcomes through implementation of nontraditional programming in classrooms; (iv) replicating effective, evidence-based practices for ensuring student academic success; or (v) evaluating the success of educational approaches designed to address disparities in achievement among student populations.

(c) The commissioner shall consult with the Twenty-First Century Education Advisory Council on implementation of the Twenty-First Century Education Program consistent with this section. The advisory council shall, from time to time, make recommendations to the commissioner on the improvement of the design, oversight or implementation of the program. The advisory council may receive and consider reports and input from expert individuals, educators, school administrators, parents, community-based organizations, voluntary education organizations and other relevant public and private organizations recognized as having expertise consistent with this section.

(d) There shall be a competitive grant program developed and administered by the commissioner and supported by the Twenty-First Century Education Trust Fund for all public schools and school districts. All grant applications shall include: (i) an evaluation plan, including identification of the researcher or organization responsible for ongoing evaluation; (ii) a statement of the expected impact; (iii) a preliminary estimate of the cost of the intervention; (iv) identification of a comparison group for the purpose of assessing effectiveness; and (v) a mechanism for determining how the proposal may be effectively replicated. In approving grant applications, the commissioner may give preference to applications that include: (A) evidence-based educational approaches to address persistent disparities in student achievement that improve student outcomes or increase student preparedness for workforce and post-secondary education; provided, however, that preference shall be given to applications that are submitted by schools or districts with a high percentage of low-income students and English learners, which may include schools or districts implementing turnaround plans; and (B) approaches to increase efficiencies and educational program quality within and across school districts; provided, however, that preference shall be given to applications submitted by schools or districts in rural areas with low or declining enrollment. The commissioner may provide funds and other resources to districts as needed to ensure that every public school and school district has the opportunity to apply for grants; provided, however, that the commissioner may provide funds and other resources to assist in the development of grant applications for public schools implementing turnaround plans.

(e) Public schools and school districts awarded funds pursuant to this section shall work with the commissioner to: (i) analyze the effectiveness of their initiatives; and (ii) participate in the replication of effective evidence-based practices for public schools.

(f) A public school or school district that is awarded funds pursuant to this section may submit a written request for a waiver of 1 or more provisions of the education regulations of the commonwealth to permit the school or school district to initiate programs, schedules or services that shall improve student learning. The commissioner may grant a regulatory waiver if the commissioner: (i) determines the waiver is necessary to support the proposed initiative; and (ii) notifies the board of elementary and secondary education not less than 30 days prior to acting on any such waiver request.

(g) Money in the fund may be used to support the replication of effective practices and the dissemination of best practices generated through the competitive grant program and turnaround efforts that have been proven to address persistent disparities in achievement among student subgroups.

(h) Annually, not later than December 1, the commissioner shall submit a report detailing expenditures from the trust fund to the clerks of the senate and house of representatives, the senate and house committees on ways and means and the joint committee on education

As the 21st Century Education Fund is expected to receive the majority of its funding through the annual state budget process, financial projections are difficult to make. After passing the Senate on October 4, the bill moved to House Committee on Ways & Means, where it awaits further consideration and debate.

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