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School-funding battles date back 4 decades

If Brockton and Worcester go forward with a lawsuit against the state over school funding, it will be just the latest effort in a 40-year battle. Along the way, Brockton has taken the lead. Here’s a look back at some of the key moments in the decades-old legal fight:

1978: Families in 16 lower-income communities sue the state, contending that state leaders were denying their right to an equal education “by providing them, without justification, fewer and inferior education opportunities and advantages, solely because they reside in cities and towns with low property wealth.” Brockton student Roburn Webby is lead plaintiff.

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Shortly afterward, the Legislature overhauls school funding, putting the lawsuit on hold.

1983: The plaintiffs restart Webby v. Dukakis as school systems experience increasing financial strain under Proposition 2½, which restricts communities’ ability to raise property taxes. The Legislature eventually changes the state’s school funding system again.

1991: The plaintiffs refile their case. Sixth-grader Jami McDuffy of Brockton becomes the lead plaintiff. She had science and social studies classes with 62 students, and told the Globe two years later, “We had to bring in our chairs to class because there weren’t enough desks. . . . There were three of us sharing the one book.”

1993: The Supreme Judicial Court finds the state is not fulfilling its constitutional duty “to provide education in the public schools for the children there enrolled, whether they be rich or poor and without regard to the fiscal capacity of the community or district in which such children live.”

Within days, Governor William Weld signs the 1993 Education Reform Act, which includes a new funding formula.

1995: The plaintiffs raise concerns in court that the state is still not providing enough money. Senate Ways and Means Chairman Thomas Birmingham blasted the move: “I’m reminded of someone who gorges himself, burps, and says give me more.”

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1999: The plaintiffs refile their case against the state, contending it is still falling short. Julie Hancock, a sixth-grader who plays softball and the French horn, becomes lead plaintiff, saying, “I want to help Brockton get the money we really need for books and smaller classrooms.”

2004: A Suffolk Superior Court judge initially issues the plaintiffs a victory, agreeing the state isn’t doing enough: “Most worrisome is the fact, reflected in all the MCAS scores, that for children with learning disabilities, children with limited English proficiency, racial and ethnic minority children, and those from low-income homes, the inadequacies are even more profound.”

2005: The Supreme Judicial Court overturns the decision, finding “a system mired in failure has given way to one that, although far from perfect, shows a steady trajectory of progress.”

2015: A legislative commission finds that Massachusetts has been underestimating the costs of an adequate public education and consequently has been shortchanging school systems millions of dollars. It says progress under Education Reform “will be at risk so long as our school systems are fiscally strained.”

2018: A bill that would implement the legislative commission’s recommendations moves slowly on Beacon Hill; Brockton and Worcester explore a school funding lawsuit.


Material culled from Globe archives and court documents. James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.