December 6, 2019 by State Senator Patrick O’Connor
The week of Thanksgiving, Governor Baker uttered the title of this column, “Talent is Evenly Distributed, Opportunity Is Not”, as he signed into law landmark legislation, the Student Opportunity Act, which will invest an additional $2.2 billion dollars, after inflation, into our public education system over the next seven years.
I was proud to be in attendance to witness this historic moment, but even more proud of the work I was able to contribute to this final bill over the past two and a half years.
During the 2017-18 legislative session, the House and Senate were not able to compromise and pass education reform for those that needed it the most in our Commonwealth. I was fortunate to be one of the three Senate negotiators assigned to a Conference Committee to meet with three House negotiators to attempt to resolve the differences in our bills.
Despite hundreds of hours spent negotiating the bill, the Conference Committee was unable to reach an agreement. This was a major disappointment to not only me, but to the many teachers, students, and education advocates across the state that worked on the legislation. However, even though the House and Senate left that negotiating table without a bill, the State Legislature was the closest it had been since 1993 on real, true education reform.
So, fresh off the 2018 elections, we got back to work. The two Chairs of the Joint Committee on Education, Senator Jason Lewis and Representative Alice Peisch, took the lead, grew on the advancements made during those Conference Committee meetings the year before, and developed framework legislation to address the greatest needs of our state’s public education system.
For decades, Massachusetts has been ranked as the top public education system in America and one of the top ten in the world if we were a standalone country. However, we continue to see major achievement gaps for school districts with higher populations of economically disadvantaged, English learning, and special needs students.
The Student Opportunity Act makes targeted investments in school districts and children, and in doing so, states loud and clear that every single child, no matter their economic background, learning needs, or language barriers, will receive the best education they can possibly have from this Commonwealth.
It is truly a full follow-through on Massachusetts’ commitment to academic excellence, and a reaffirmation of our belief that the best investment our state government can make is to provide every child a high-quality education.
Not only does this bill shine a light on the neglected dark spaces of our education system, it also shines a light on the tricky grey areas – middle tier schools that aren’t chronically underperforming but are still dealing with achievement gaps and lack of resources.
Many of those schools in the grey area are the ones hit hardest by our flawed charter school reimbursement system and special education costs.
This bill stands up for them too, by setting forth a 3-year schedule to fully fund all charter school tuition reimbursements and to pay all school districts for special education transportation costs.
After the Senate and the House unanimously passed bills in their respective branches, a Conference Committee was established to resolve the differences, and I was proud to once again serve as one of the three Senate negotiators. This time, rather than endless hours of meetings, the differences were resolved within weeks and we had a bill ready for the Governor to sign.
On the floor of the Senate, before formally accepting the Conference Committee report, I urged my colleagues to take a second to think about the significance of this moment, this point in time that has been coming for 26 years, that our Commonwealth finally took the step to lift marginalized children out of educational poverty.
The issue of socioeconomic inequality is a long-fought battle that we will continue to fight until everyone has an equal opportunity to make what they want of their life. In the meantime, Massachusetts is not going to let children be caught in that cycle.
Senator O’Connor represents the Plymouth and Norfolk district, which includes the towns of Cohasset, Duxbury, Hingham, Hull, Marshfield, Norwell, Scituate, and Weymouth. Senator O’Connor and his staff may be reached via phone at 617-722-1646 or via email at Patrick.O’Connor@MASenate.gov.