This week, the House of Representatives advanced and finalized several pieces of important legislation, covering the topics of education, nutrition, public safety, and children’s health before breaking for the holidays. As formal sessions end for the remainder of the year, I’m pleased we advanced these critical pieces of legislation, sending several to the Governor’s desk for his signature.
The House of Representatives has given final enactment to the Student Opportunity Act to update the education funding formula for our K-12 schools. This historic legislation invests $1.5 billion in the Commonwealth’s public education system, including a projected $3.4 million in new Chapter 70 funding for Cape Ann’s schools once fully implemented. It fully enacts the funding formula recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission regarding health care, special education, English learners, and low income students, as well as the recommendations regarding data collection and reporting, to ensure that the school funding formula provides adequate and equitable funding to all districts across the state.
In addition to implementing the FBRC recommendations and establishing new sources of revenue to improve our schools, the legislation incorporates language from a bill that I filed this session with Treasurer Deborah Goldberg to increase the amount that the Massachusetts School Building Authority may spend annually on school building construction and renovation from $600 million to $800 million. A dedicated portion of the state sales tax funds the MSBA, therefore no additional funding mechanism is needed. This action will enable the agency to allocate more existing funds and accept more projects across the state into its funding pipeline.
We also passed legislation this week to require all public schools with at least 60 percent of their students eligible for free or reduced-price meals under the federal National School Lunch Program to offer all students a school breakfast after the beginning of the instructional day, giving access to a healthy breakfast to up to 150,000 students across Massachusetts. Schools may use the model that best suits its students including breakfast in the classroom, grab and go breakfast, or second chance breakfast in the cafeteria.
Although most students in the Commonwealth’s schools eat lunch regularly, less than half of students eat a breakfast that would provide them with the energy and focus needed to be active and engaged learners, often because they find it challenging to fit in breakfast before the beginning of the school day, especially because some buses arrive minutes before the start of school. Additionally, for some low-income students, school lunch may be the only balanced and complete meal they get each day. This legislation will ensure that these children eat a healthy breakfast and lunch with their peers and without stigma.
Another piece of highly-anticipated legislation that the House has enacted will ban drivers from using hand-held electronic devices in vehicles unless they are in hands-free mode. The bill allows drivers to use mapping or navigation devices if they are affixed to the windshield or integrated into the vehicle and only involve a tap or a swipe. The new law exempts the use of electronics in the case of an emergency and for first responders if they are using the devices as part of their duties.
Under this legislation, hands-on use of a cell phone in a non-emergency situation while driving results in a fine and increases the amount for repeated offenses. There have been many preventable tragedies that involved drivers who were distracted when holding their cell phone while speaking on the phone, sending or reading a text, or using an app while driving. I am pleased to have voted to pass this legislation to make our roads safer by ensuring that drivers keep their eyes and focus on the road, not their cell phones.
The House of Representatives unanimously passed legislation supporting the health and wellness of children across the Commonwealth. This bill is one part of a multi-tiered initiative to address the specific needs of children and adolescents in an integrated fashion, creates a foundation for better access to services and more data to inform future policy. The effort seeks to make access to healthcare easier for vulnerable populations, eliminate barriers to care and formulate data-driven recommendations to improve service delivery and system coordination. The initiative supports a holistic approach that provides services early and often – ensuring that children grow to be healthier, happier and more productive adults.
The legislation seeks to address foster child wellness, including requiring the Department of Children and Families to report on efforts to improve the foster care system in the Commonwealth and securing health care benefits for foster children until the age of 26. To strengthen and improve access to care, it creates a special commission to address pediatric provider availability and adequacy and charges a special commission to review the Department of Public Health’s School-Based Health Center Program for the purpose of strengthening, improving, and replicating best practices across the state. Additionally, the bill requires the Heath Policy Commission to conduct analysis of children with medical complexity in order to develop services for this unique population.