The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

Legislative Update on Education Bills

Members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
Jeff Wulfson, Acting Commissioner
September 15, 2017


The Massachusetts House and Senate are a full time legislature that meets in a two-year cycle. The 190th legislative session began on January 4, 2017. Statute requires the state legislature to meet every 72 hours either formally or informally. Formal sessions are scheduled for controversial items, land transfers, and certain "money" bills. Informal sessions handle the rest.

Because Massachusetts is a Commonwealth, every citizen has the ability to file a bill, as does every legislator. Between 6000 and 8000 bills are typically filed during a legislative session. The bill filing deadline this session was January 20, 2017. The Governor can file a bill at any time.

Pending Legislation

Timely filed bills (filed by January 20) are required to have a public hearing. To date, the Joint Committee on Education, chaired by Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz (D-Boston) and Representative Alice Peisch (D-Wellesley), has held 9 public hearings this session. The committee currently has 338 bills in committee, and has released the following 17 bills from committee with favorable reports:

Most of the bills that the Joint Committee favorably released this session were also favorably released in the previous session. The bills are at the beginning of a lengthy legislative process that includes review and release by additional legislative committees, including both the Senate Ways and Means and House Ways and Means Committees, before being considered for any floor action. Bills engrossed with non-concurrent language in the House and the Senate also require conference committee deliberation following engrossment.

Last session, only one bill was enacted out of a total of 344 bills assigned to the Joint Committee on Education. In all, ten bills were enacted last session that affect either the administration of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (ESE) or Massachusetts school districts. For a synopsis of those bills and other actions of the 189th legislative session, please see the Legislative Report: Education-Related Laws Enacted in 2015-2016 Legislative Session that was included in the January 24, 2017 Board meeting materials.

Current Legislative Issues

DESE regularly comments on education-related legislation through the Executive Office of Education to the Joint Committee on Education or to subsequently assigned committees. DESE provides implementation considerations, perspective on current practices and potential changes, and technical information necessary for drafting workable bills.

In the current session, the legislature is considering several bills relating to K-12 education including civics, school breakfast, English learner instruction, assessments and accountability, and turnaround work.


Background: G.L. c. 71, § 2 has been in statute since 1920 and was amended most recently in 2010. The statute reads as follows:

In all public elementary and high schools American history and civics, including the constitution of the United States, the declaration of independence and the bill of rights, and in all public high schools the constitution of the commonwealth and local history and government and a program relating to the flag of the United States of America, including, but not limited to, proper etiquette, the correct use and display of the flag, the importance of participation in the electoral process and the provisions of 36 U.S.C. 170 to 177, inclusive, shall be taught as required subjects for the purpose of promoting civic service and a greater knowledge thereof, and of fitting the pupils, morally and intellectually, for the duties of citizenship.

Pending legislation: Civics education is regularly the subject of at least a dozen bills filed each session. This session, they will likely receive more attention given the recent presidential election. Both Senate Majority Leader Harriette Chandler (D-Worcester) and Representative Jay Kaufman (D-Lexington) have requested DESE's input for the bills that they have each filed. Senator Chandler's bill, S215 An Act to promote and enhance civic education, establishes the Civics Projects Fund to be used by DESE to offset costs of developing models and monitoring implementation of mandated student-led civics projects in each district that would be required for graduation. Representative Kaufman and late Senator Ken Donnelly (D-Arlington) filed H280 and S244 A Resolve to promote better citizenship, civics education and civic engagement respectively, which both establish a commission to study the issue. Because this legislation is formatted as a resolve, it is non-binding guidance if it is enacted. More than 20 other civics related bills have been timely-filed this session, all of which DESE will be tracking.

School Breakfast

Background: Pursuant to G.L c.69, §1C, Massachusetts public schools in which 40 percent or more students were eligible for free or reduced price lunch two years prior are mandated to offer breakfast. Additional state reimbursement is given to these schools. For universal breakfast, elementary schools that are mandated to serve breakfast and had 60 percent or more free and reduced price applications the previous year can apply to receive additional state breakfast reimbursement (in addition to breakfast mandate reimbursement) for offering breakfast at no cost to all students.

To address program participation, DESE partners with the Child Nutrition Outreach Program (CNOP) at Project Bread which is funded with state funds through an annual contract. Under the direction of the Office for Food and Nutrition Programs at ESE, CNOP develops materials and provides support to school district staff and community organizations to expand and improve school breakfast programs, and implements campaigns and resources to address childhood hunger in Massachusetts.

To heighten awareness of the breakfast program, Commissioner Chester in 2015 re-launched a school breakfast challenge in coordination with partners including the New England Dairy and Food Council, Eos Foundation, School Nutrition Association, MA Action for Healthy Kids, and MA Department of Agricultural Resources. DESE and the School Breakfast Challenge partners have set target school breakfast participation goals for schools, and encourage establishment of "after the bell" breakfast programs for high need schools.

In February 2015, Commissioner Chester established a new policy allowing breakfast in the classroom to count towards student learning time as long as instruction is being provided during breakfast. This policy eliminates one barrier for schools implementing breakfast in the classroom.

These initiatives by ESE, Project Bread, and the School Breakfast Challenge partners have steadily increased school breakfast participation, especially in high need districts. In February 2017, the Food Research & Action Council released their 2016 national School Breakfast Scorecard and ranked Massachusetts second for growth in high need student school breakfast participation. The Commonwealth is one of only four states that had double-digit growth, and last year was the third year in a row that Massachusetts has been among the top 10 states in terms of growth in participation. DESE is continuing these efforts in collaboration with our partner organizations and school districts across the Commonwealth.

Pending legislation: H327 and S242 were filed this session by Representative Aaron Vega (D-Holyoke) and Senator Sal DiDomenico (D-Everett) to require districts with large low-income student populations to offer universal, free breakfast during the official school day, "after the bell." More than 200 high poverty schools across the Commonwealth are already operating after the bell breakfast programs. These bills were heard by the Joint Committee on Education on July 18, 2017.

English Learner Instruction

Background: In 2002, Massachusetts voters approved a ballot question relative to English learner instruction in the classroom, restricting bilingual education and mandating English-only immersion as the official policy for students with limited English, except in certain circumstances. As a result, Sheltered English Immersion (SEI) became the prominent means of English learner instruction in Massachusetts public schools. The Board promulgated regulations that included creating an SEI endorsement for core academic teachers and administrators who educate English learners. Under this initiative, since 2012 nearly 50,000 educators have received training and earned the SEI endorsement.

Pending legislation: Both the Massachusetts House of Representatives and Senate engrossed bills this session to add flexibility to the SEI mandate, effectively allowing bilingual education in lieu of SEI for students. The legislature has formed a conference committee to reconcile the two bills, S2134 and H3740.

Assessments and Accountability

Background: G.L. c. 69, § 1I (enacted by the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993) directs DESE to develop and implement a statewide assessment system (MCAS) to assess academic achievement of students in Massachusetts schools and districts. DESE administers, monitors, and revises the assessment annually.

Pending legislation: Several bills have been filed in the 190th legislative session that pertain to state assessments. On September 12, 2017, the Joint Committee on Education held a hearing on all the bills, including the following:

School and District Turnaround

Background: The Achievement Gap Act of 2010 created flexibilities for DESE in its efforts to assist the state's lowest performing schools and districts. G.L. c. 69, §1J gives the Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education authority to designate one or more schools in a district as underperforming or chronically underperforming, using multiple indicators. Eligible schools and districts will only be from the lowest performing 20 percent in the state. Superintendents (for underperforming schools) and the Commissioner (for chronically underperforming schools) are given authority to take actions designed to accelerate student achievement, including but not limited to: expanding curriculum and program offerings, reallocating the budget, extending student learning time, and changing school district policies and collective bargaining agreements, with limitations.

Pending legislation: House Education Committee Chairwoman Alice Peisch and Senator Eric Lesser have each filed bills (H304, S279) that would give school districts the option of creating "Innovation Partnership Zones." The bills are not identical but both are loosely modeled on Springfield's Empowerment Zone, where certain schools are given additional autonomy from the district and overseen by a board of directors, allowing schools control over their budgets, personnel, schedule, and curriculum. The bills were both heard by the Joint Committee on Education on September 5, 2017.

I will keep the Board informed about any significant action on legislation that affects our work. Jessica Leitz, DESE's Director of External Partnerships, will be at the Board meeting on September 26 to respond to your questions. The full text of any of the bills referenced can be found on the Legislature's website, or contact Jessica Leitz for a copy.


Download Word Document
Legislative Report: Education-Related Laws Enacted in 2015-2016 Legislative Session