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Parents to file civil rights lawsuit against state over unequal school funding

Massachusetts Education Secretary James Peyser is one of the defendants named in a lawsuit against state education leaders for allegedly violating the civil rights of low-income, black, and Latino students by failing to provide them with the same quality of education as their mostly white affluent peers.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Parents from seven Massachusetts school districts, frustrated by the Legislature’s inability to overhaul school funding, plan to file a lawsuit against state education leaders Thursday for allegedly violating the civil rights of low-income, black, and Latino students by failing to provide them with the same quality of education as their mostly white affluent peers.

The 98-page lawsuit, to be filed in Supreme Judicial Court for Suffolk County, contends the spending gaps between poor and well-to-do systems have been widening for years, enabling affluent students to have the best public education money can buy — a plethora of college-level courses, cutting-edge technology, and robust arts and athletics programs.


Meanwhile, many poor students struggle in crowded classrooms with outdated and tattered textbooks, aging computers, and a scarcity of basics that forces their teachers to turn to online fund-raisers to buy pencils, paper, books, and calculators.

That hinders their performance on standardized tests and their ability to graduate from high school and succeed in college, according to an advance copy of the lawsuit provided to the Globe.

A diverse group of parents from Chelsea, Chicopee, Fall River, Haverhill, Lowell, Orange, and Springfield are pursuing the lawsuit, along with the New England Area Conference of the NAACP and Chelsea Collaborative, a nonprofit.

Assisting their effort is the Council for Fair School Finance, a nonprofit comprised of teacher unions and civil rights groups. It won a landmark education-funding lawsuit in 1993 that pressured lawmakers to pass the 1993 Education Reform Act.

The lawsuit asks the court to declare that state officials have failed to ensure, under the state’s constitution, an education is funded adequately. Such a decision that would require overhauling the state funding formula — and that officials have violated the rights of students based on their race, national origin, or residence in low-income communities.


“Public education is no longer on a steady trajectory of progress but instead is suffering from an increasing inability to provide sufficient resources to meet ever-increasing educational challenges,” the lawsuit says. “Wealthier districts with relatively few disadvantaged students are educating their children by providing funding from local resources far in excess” of what the state requires.

The legal fight comes nearly four years after a legislative commission found the state was underestimating the cost of public education by hundreds of millions dollars annually. Although top legislative leaders and Governor Charlie Baker say overhauling the 26-year-old funding formula is a high priority, they remain divided over the approaches.

A Suffolk University/Boston Globe survey released Tuesday found that 60 percent of respondents didn’t think the state was providing enough money for schools, and almost as many were willing to pay more in state taxes to reduce educational spending disparities.

The gulf between the spending levels is staggering. For instance, in Chelsea, where 82 percent of students live in poverty or have a language barrier or disability, the district spent $13,857 per student in 2017, according to the most recent state data. By contrast, only a quarter of the students in Weston have those learning challenges, yet the wealthy town west of Boston spent almost $10,000 more per student.

Mayra Balderas, whose son is a fifth-grader in Chelsea, said state leaders are failing to fulfill their responsibility of providing a quality education for all students by relying on an antiquated formula.


“They are just contributing to the cycle of poverty because our students are not receiving a proper education so they can get successful jobs,” said Balderas, a plaintiff.

The lawsuit names four state officials as defendents: James Peyser, secretary of education; Jeffrey Riley, commissioner of elementary and secondary education; Katherine Craven, chair of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education; and Michael Heffernan, secretary of administration and finance.

The state’s school funding formula, developed under the Education Reform Act, aimed to resolve spending inequities by considering a municipality’s ability to pay, resulting in more aid for poorer schools. However, the formula failed to keep pace with inflation, creating budget woes in poor systems. Affluent systems, meanwhile, were able to fill in the gaps and then some.

The threat of litigation has hung over the school funding debate in recent years. The Brockton school system, which was part of the landmark school funding lawsuit in 1993, raised the specter of litigation over two years ago and again last month — joined by Worcester and New Bedford officials. But the three districts are willing to give the Legislature more time.

The Joint Education Committee is expected to release a consensus bill this month, while Baker has been pushing his proposal around the state. A big divide is over money. Baker’s bill would boost aid to municipalities by about $500 million at the end of seven years, according to one estimate. Other bills are more generous.

Plaintiffs question whether any resulting proposal will go far enough.


“We can’t wait any longer and hope the Legislature and governor will do the right thing,” said Juan Cofield, president of the New England Area Conference of the NAACP. “The students are being harmed.’’

Litigation could take years and faces an uncertain outcome. The 1993 landmark school funding case, in which the Supreme Judicial Court determined the state had failed to meet its constitutional duty to provide an adequate education to all public school children, was originally filed in the late 1970s. A successor case, claiming the state was still not providing enough money, was rejected by the Supreme Judicial Court in 2005.

“It’s devastating to see that underfunded communities, such as Chelsea, are not getting their fair share,” said executive director of the Chelsea Collaborative, Gladys Vega. “I really think that modernizing the formula is a must.”

James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com.