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Court throws out lawsuit challenging charter school cap

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A Suffolk Superior Court judge threw out a lawsuit Tuesday that challenged the constitutionality of limiting the number of charter schools that can operate, saying the state has a right to protect the financial interests of traditional school systems.

In issuing the decision, Associate Justice Heidi E. Brieger waded into a volatile debate as voters contemplate a ballot question next month that seeks to accelerate the expansion of charter schools statewide.

Opponents of the measure argue that charter schools drain money from local school systems, which lose state aid to cover charter-school tuition costs. But charter school advocates counter that school systems don't need that money because they are no longer educating those students.

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"Defendants argue, and the court agrees, that the Legislature's charter school cap reflects an effort to allocate education funding between and among all the Commonwealth's students and therefore has a rational basis and cannot violate the equal protection clause" of the US Constitution, Brieger wrote.

The plaintiffs intend to seek an appeal, said Michael Keating, one of the attorneys who filed the case a year ago on behalf of five Boston students who were unsuccessful in securing charter school seats through annual lotteries. Most charter schools, which are public institutions under state law, operate independently of local school systems.

"Our contention is that the charter schools have not drawn funds out of school districts," said Keating, noting districts receive some state reimbursements. "The funds follow the student. School districts, such as Boston, have many other issues they should be contending with such as over capacity."

The lawsuit had argued that caps on charters were arbitrary and denied students the opportunity for a quality education.

In the case of the five Boston students, the lawsuit said they were forced to accept spots at traditional public schools that the state had classified as low performing and consequently could have jeopardized their chances of achieving at high levels. Few students at the schools they were attending were achieving proficiency on state tests.

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But Brieger disagreed with the notion that the students were destined to educational failure. She noted that the state's school accountability system was created to "single out schools for extra scrutiny and improvement so as to ensure the Commonwealth is in fact fulfilling its constitutional mandate to provide 'a public education system of sufficient quality.' "

The lawsuit had named state Education Secretary James Peyser and state education board Chairman Paul Sagan as defendants. That created a politically awkward situation for them as well as for Governor Charlie Baker, all of whom support the opening of more charter schools, but were forced to defend the charter caps established by the Legislature and former governors.

The most contentious cap limits how much a community can allocate toward charter school tuition, restricting it between 9 percent and 18 percent of overall education spending.

Peyser said the administration is reviewing the decision.

"Governor Baker and this administration strongly support lifting the cap on charter schools to give more parents and students in underperforming districts and low-income communities access to the high quality education they deserve, while at the same time investing the largest ever amount of direct aid to public education,'' he said in a statement.

The ruling delighted organizations and students from traditional schools who filed motions in opposition to the lawsuit.

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"I think the court sends a clear message that taking money for charter schools will harm children in traditional school districts," said Matt Cregor, education project director for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice. "The cap creates a base line — a modest amount of stability — that district funding can not fall below. Eliminating the cap would have destroyed the base line."

The Lawyers' Committee represented the New England Area Conference of the NAACP, the Boston Branch of the NAACP, and individual students of color, students with disabilities, and English language learners attending traditional public schools who opposed the lawsuit.

Juan Cofield, president of the New England Area Conference of the NAACP, echoed a similar sentiment.

"We are relieved that this decision protects local public school students from the expansion of a two-tiered system of separate and unequal schools in the Commonwealth," Cofield said in a statement. "Charter schools siphon money away from the local public schools that educate most kids, leaving them with fewer resources and leading to severe budget cuts that hurt our children."


James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.