Area lawmakers active in crafting landmark education bill

  • State Rep. Alice Peisch and state Sen. Jason Lewis, who led House-Senate talks over the education funding reform bill, were pushed outside by a fire alarm – along with all other State House occupants – immediately after filing their compromise Tuesday morning. STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE/SAM DORAN

  • All six conferees signed onto the compromise education reform bill, which House and Senate leaders expect to bring to a vote on Wednesday. STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE/SAM DORAN

Staff Writer
Published: 11/20/2019 10:37:01 PM

BOSTON — It was a joyous atmosphere on Beacon Hill Wednesday as the state Legislature unanimously passed the $1.5 billion Student Opportunity Act school funding bill.

And western Massachusetts lawmakers have their fingerprints all over the legislation.

The landmark compromise legislation is a significant overhaul of the state’s Chapter 70 education funding formula. It was largely based on the PROMISE Act, which was introduced in part by state Rep. Aaron Vega, D-Holyoke. And several local lawmakers were successful in getting amendments adopted as part of the larger bill.

“It’s very powerful to see that, as a delegation, the members have had an impact,” state Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, said. “And this bill is going to be around for a long time so that means western Massachusetts is going to be heard for a long time.”

Domb herself sponsored a successful amendment that ensures that charter schools are submitting the same annual reports and accountability plans that traditional public school districts are required to submit under the new legislation.

State Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland, sponsored an amendment in the House that will create a special commission to study and make recommendations on the fiscal health of rural school districts that are facing, or might face, declining enrollment.

Blais said the rural schools commission was included in the initial bill, but the amendment — which on the Senate side was sponsored by Sens. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and Donald Humason, R-Westfield — strengthens the commission.

She noted that the commission will now include a member from the Rural Policy Advisory Commission, and that it now emphasizes that the state study all districts that are facing declining enrollment.

Blais said the Student Opportunity Act, which she called a historic investment in the future, was limited in its scope. Ultimately, challenges that the state education department has identified in rural districts were not included in the funding changes, she said.

“I do think that this does lay the groundwork to dig deep into the challenges our rural schools are facing,” Blais said, “and to take that next step.”

Comerford and Hinds, together with state Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, also successfully sponsored an amendment that will see the state analyze the impact of Proposition 2½ on the ability of municipalities to make required local contributions.

Vega said the bill will mean as much as $40 million in additional funding for Holyoke schools over the next seven years. He said the money could be used to continue to expand pre-K, the district’s dual-enrollment program and an arts program in every grade, as well as provide needed professional development for staff in areas such as trauma-informed care.

Overall, he said, the bill is a commitment to low-income students in cities like Holyoke and elsewhere.

“This isn’t a silver bullet, it doesn’t fix everything,” he said. “But we know that every district is going to benefit from this bill.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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