Suit challenges school-funding formula, but it’s unclear if it will spur Legislature to act
With wide disparities in spending among Massachusetts public schools, legal and education experts have long expected the filing of a lawsuit seeking a remedy. But when one was filed Thursday, they differed on what impact, if any, it would have in getting a school-funding bill passed on Beacon Hill.
“It’s the right time to prod the legislative branch to do something,” said Mark Paige, an associate professor at the Department of Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
Paul Reville, a former state education secretary, said merely filing a lawsuit at the Supreme Judicial Court would be unlikely to accelerate the legislative process, noting lawmakers are already working under a threat of litigation by several groups. But plaintiffs in this case have solid legal ground, he emphasized.
“Unquestionably, our school funding formula has moved from one of the strengths in Massachusetts public education to one of its weaknesses,” Reville said. “The formula has not kept pace with inflation.”
Frustrated with the Legislature’s sluggish pace, parents from seven school systems _ Chelsea, Chicopee, Fall River, Haverhill, Lowell, Orange, and Springfield — along with the New England Area Conference of the NAACP and the nonprofit Chelsea Collaborative filed suit Thursday. They contend the state’s funding formula, developed under the 1993 Education Reform Act, is outdated and causing spending inequities between poor and affluent districts to grow, depriving students in underfunded districts their constitutional right to an equal education.
“Today’s lawsuit is challenging the 21st century version of separate and unequal,” Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, one of the organizations handling the lawsuit, said at a press conference Thursday at the State House.
“Today, far too many low-income children and children of color attend essentially segregated schools with fewer teachers, resources, classes, and opportunities than their wealthy and predominantly white peers.”
Assisting the effort is the Council for Fair School Finance, a nonprofit comprised of teacher unions and civil rights groups that won a landmark 1993 school-funding case.
The lawsuit names four defendants: 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.
Governor Charlie Baker addressed the lawsuit Thursday morning at Bunker Hill Community College in Charlestown, where he was promoting expanded opportunities for high school students to take college courses. While he declined to comment on the lawsuit’s specifics, he noted he had filed a bill this year to boost school spending over the next seven years.
“I don’t think anybody needs pressure to get a bill done,” Baker said in response to a reporter’s question, according to a transcript provided by his office. “I think everybody agrees that there are changes in the formula that need to get done and is part of the reason we filed a bill with our budget. . . . I think every indication is people would really like this to get resolved in this legislative session.”
Plaintiffs gathered in a room on the fourth floor of the State House for the press conference, where parents and children held a blue banner that read “Education Rights Are Civil Rights.”
Danielle Andersen, an Orange School Committee member who has two school-age children, talked about the poverty that emerged in her community after some industry disappeared.
“Our children are going to school with a leaky roof; the furnace blew last winter,” she said. “My son’s biggest field trip this year was walking down the street to the Fire Department.”
For the School Committee to balance its budget next year, it needs to lay off four teachers or eliminate art, music, gym, and technology classes — that’s if an upcoming vote to increase property taxes passes.
If the vote fails, and she said there’s a good chance it will, the School Committee would have to cut both the teachers and the programs.
Parents from Fall River and Chelsea also shared stories about tight budgets — classes with 30 or more students, a shortage of aides, not enough books for English classes — and the challenges many students face.
Norieliz Dejesus, an organizer for the Chelsea Collaborative who has two children, talked about how a homeless teenager sometimes sleeps at 24-hour laundromats as she juggles classes.
“These are the students that the state is turning their backs on,” she said. “Please don’t let this continue to happen.”