BOSTON – State Senator Benjamin B. Downing (D-Pittsfield) announces the Massachusetts Senate passed an innovative education reform bill on Tuesday that establishes a new category of public schools, provides options to improve existing school districts that are underperforming, and puts the Commonwealth in better position to secure federal funds to help all public schools in Massachusetts.
“This bill places the Commonwealth in the best position for federal Race to the Top funds,” said Downing. “It encourages innovation in school districts and equips underperforming schools with the tools they need to help students achieve. Ultimately, this puts our education system on the path to better serving all Massachusetts students.”
During the Senate debate, Downing spoke on behalf of a successful amendment that stipulates regional school transportation payments made by the state in any fiscal year through the General Appropriations Act shall not be lowered by a greater percentage than any reduction made to state Chapter 70 payments in the same fiscal year. In his remarks Downing pointed to the Governor’s recent $20 million FY 2010 9C funding reduction of the Chapter 71 regional school transportation line item account which is dramatically affecting the operating budgets of regional school systems across western Massachusetts.
An Act Relative To Education Reform (S. 2205) creates Innovation Schools, which are district public schools with increased autonomy and flexibility to operate. Any school, in any district, may take advantage of this new model, and the funding of these schools is the same as for any other school in the district.
Any groups or individuals can submit proposals for innovation schools and approval depends on collaborative evaluation by the school committees, teachers union and superintendent.
The bill also addresses “underperforming” and “chronically underperforming” schools by authorizing the commissioner of elementary and secondary education to intervene and work with school superintendents to develop turnaround plans for those schools.
Plans can be approved for up to three years. Upon expiration of the plan, the commissioner will review the school and decide whether the school has improved sufficiently, requires further improvement or has failed to improve at all. If no improvement has occurred, the commissioner can take steps to institute dramatic turn around.
Schools that score in the lowest 20 percent in the statewide Composite Performance Index are designated as either underperforming or chronically underperforming. No more than 5 percent of the state’s schools can have either designation at any given time.
A final piece of the bill removes the cap that limits the state’s total charter school population to 4 percent. It also raises the state spending cap for charter schools from 9 to 18 percent of net school spending in the lowest 10 percent performing districts.
The legislation requires charter schools to develop recruitment and retention plans which include annual goals and specific strategies to attract, enroll and retain low-income, special-education, limited-English, and sub-proficient students.
All the changes provided in the legislation strengthen the Commonwealth’s ability to compete for federal “Race to the Top” grant money worth $150 million to $250 million which represents a one-time-only opportunity to maintain and improve our education system, especially in these tough fiscal times when budgets are being slashed and programs are being cut.
The application deadline for these funds – January 19, 2010 – is fast approaching, and the Senate’s vote puts Massachusetts one step closer to obtaining these funds. The bill now goes to the House of Representatives for further action.