Can the Student Opportunity Act Survive Coronavirus?

The Gateway Cities Journal

Can the Student Opportunity Act Survive Coronavirus?

Before coronavirus disrupted everything, Gateway Cities were working on their Student Opportunity Act (SOA) plans. These documents – schedules for how each school district will use their allotment of $1.4 billion in new funding – are the law’s central accountability mechanism. Last week, Governor Baker signed legislation retroactively moving the April 1st deadline to May 15th, or a later date to be determined by Commissioner Jeff Riley. With the FY 2021 budget influx, it’s safe to say May 15th is also out the window. Commissioner Riley’s choice of a new date may seem relatively inconsequential at the moment, but this decision will have ripple effects far into the future.

Here are two thoughts on how he could proceed.

Option One

First, let communities know that they will not need to submit full plans this year, and urge them to take advantage of the additional time.

Worcester was one of the few Gateway Cities to release a plan despite the crisis. A look at the document reveals the potential these plans have to increase accountability for student success. By outlining in clear detail the district’s strategic priorities and the investments, stakeholders get a firm understanding of what school officials think will lead to improved student outcomes, how much it will cost, and who will receive the designated funds.

But the world in which Worcester produced this document does not exist anymore. Given ongoing budget uncertainty, and the pressure communities face to respond to this complex crisis, it’s foolhardy to ask school districts to put together the three year spending plans the SOA calls for anytime soon. This kind of planning in the current environment would be merely about compliance. Commissioner Riley must take extra caution that we don’t reinforce bad habits ingrained by years of producing school and district improvement plans just to meet legislative mandates.

Postponing the SOA deadline until next spring will put Gateway City districts in a much better position to do this work really well. The law’s April 1st deadline was already ambitious given the lack of existing capacity to undertake strategic planning with meaningful community engagement. Developing robust performance measures for key initiatives within this timeframe was always going to be challenging.

Providing districts flexibility to tailor performance measures to their unique strategic priorities is a strength of the law. However, most districts don’t have the capacity to develop these metrics internally. They must work with research parners to build reliable measures and establish targets based on what evidence suggests their interventions can produce. Worcester’s plan did not include this component, which is a major flaw. Neither the public nor the school committee members who voted on the package received details outlining what the proposed investment should likely yield.

Option Two

The other option would be to postpone the full plan submission while emphasizing that districts should use the additional time well is a straightforward for the Commissioner to take immediately. Asking to districts to plan for emergency deployment of an installment of SOA funds next year is a more challenging, yet equally prudent move.

To the extent that budget makers can triage state resources and leverage federal stimulus funds, the Commissioner should advocate for pushing these dollars to school districts through the progressive SOA formula. Doing so would keep the state on a path to fully funding the law within seven years, to the greatest extent possible, while ensuring that the districts serving students heavily impacted by the crisis have resources to make up for lost learning time.

With direction from the legislature, the Commissioner could ask districts to begin developing plans immediately that outline how they would use these new dollars to deliver academic remediation over the summer and fall, as well as prepare for potential disruptions during the 2020-2021 school year. Even if it is not possible to provide as much funding as we would like, this planning practice will spur thinking about how communities adapt creatively and give policymakers a tool to gauge their immediate needs.

COVID-19 Response

Brockton designates the North Middle School gym as an isolation site for first responders who want to lower the risk of exposing their families.

The state directs support to hard-hit Chelsea. 

Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera opens additional space for homeless residents.

The state teams up with CVS to launch a drive-through testing site in Lowell.

Mayor McGee orders orders a mandatory nighttime curfew in Lynn.

The Community Foundation of Southeastern Massachusetts in New Bedford creates an Emergency Response Fund.

Pittsfield designates a former Catholic school as a homeless shelter.

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno says his city needs more masks.

Housing & Economic Development

The Baker administration launches a Manufacturing Response Initiative featuring Lawrence apparel manufacturer 99 Degrees Custom.

The New Bedford Farmers Market moves online, delivering fresh produce, baked goods, and local products to residents’ doors.

Two months ago the Worcester Public Market held its grand opening in high hopes for success. Now it’s closed and vendors wonder what happens next.

Citizens Bank and LISC Boston team up to on a small business recovery grant program.

An eviction protection bill remains hung up in the Legislature. MAPC analyzes the housing impact of coronavirus layoffs.

Brookings Institution demographer Bill Frey looks at who lives in the places hit hardest by the crisis. The Donahue Institute publishes a data visualization of disease incidence in Massachusetts communities and their demographics.


The MBTA board ponders a 2 year extension for commuter rail operator Keolis.

Construction begins on an improvement project at Fitchburg‘s Municipal Airport.

Pittsfield temporarily halts its transportation services to curb the spread of the virus.

The Worcester Regional Transit Authority institutes free bus service for passengers through April.

JetBlue seeks federal approval to suspend service from Worcester Regional Airport.

Drivers at the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority say they never got training or cleaning supplies to deal with COVID-19.

Due to low-traffic during the pandemic, Attorney General Maura Healey calls on auto insurers to cut rates in Massachusetts.


Fall River educators focus on mental health during the separation from students.

The Northern Essex Community College campus in Haverhill postpones its graduation to August and makes it virtual.

Haverhill Community Television dedicates a channel to education with daily broadcasts lined up for different grade levels.

Teachers at the Worcester Public Schools connect with their students using video messages.

WGBH reports on school districts missing the deadline for SOA plans.

Creative Placemaking

A local artist in New Bedford sends a virtual love letter to the city in “these weird times.”

The Worcester Chamber Music Society changes its plans for next season to conform to guidelines while offering a “sense of normalcy.”

Communities & People

Brockton MMA fighter Steve “The Sandman” Dunn delivers pizza to health care workers every day in honor of his mother, who was a nurse. Curtis Chanthaboun, a 14-year-old Lowell resident, uses his time to make and donate CDC-standardized masks to those who need them.

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