By Wendy Lecker
On June 13, a dozen parents in seven low-wealth Massachusetts school districts filed a lawsuit against the State, charging that persistent school underfunding violates the constitutional rights of their children under the Education Clause of the Massachusetts Constitution. They also allege that the severe underfunding of the State’s formula disproportionately harms children of color, who are more likely to attend school in districts unable to make up for lost state aid, in violation of the Massachusetts’ Equal Rights Amendment.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Mussotte v. Peyser, are represented by the law firm of Sandulli Grace, P.C., along with the Massachusetts Teachers Association, Lawyers for Civil Rights, and Professor Peter Enrich of Northeastern University School of Law. The lawsuit is supported by a broad-based coalition, the Council for Fair School Finance, whose members include AFT Massachusetts, the Boston Teachers Union, Citizens for Public Schools, Lawyers for Civil Rights, the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, and the New England Area Conference of the NAACP.
In 1993, in McDuffy v. Secretary of Education, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, the Commonwealth’s highest court, ruled that public school students have a constitutional right to an adequate education. In that case, the stipulated evidence showed that poor districts suffered from excessive class size, inadequate teaching of basic subjects as a result of staff reductions, inadequate training and high turnover, neglected libraries, inadequate guidance counseling and more. The Court ruled that these deficiencies, caused by insufficient state funding, painted a “bleak portrait of the plaintiffs’ schools” and deprived children of their constitutional rights.
In response to McDuffy, Massachusetts reformed its school finance system, instituting a foundation aid formula. The formula calculated a foundation budget, which represented the cost of an adequate education for each district, accounting for differences in student need. The formula then determined a state and local share of the budget amount, based on a municipality’s ability to raise revenue. The Commonwealth also established a Foundation Budget Review Commission (FBRC), which was required to recalculate the foundation budget every three years, adjusting it based on changing costs and student need.
Ten years after McDuffy, plaintiffs again sued the state in Hancock v. Driscoll, charging that the foundation budget was inadequate. The trial court ruled for the plaintiffs. The Commonwealth’s highest court agreed with the lower court that state funding was inadequate; however, it reversed the trial court’s decision because the Commonwealth had showed “a steady trajectory of progress.”
Although the FBRC was required to regularly reassess the foundation budget, it has only done so three times in 26 years. In 2015, the last time it conducted a review, the FBRC concluded that the State had failed to “deliver quality [education] consistently to all geographies and all demographic groups across our state.” It also found a significant need to fund services for low-income students, students with disabilities, and English language learners, as well as employee and retiree health insurance. The FBRC found Massachusetts “understates the cost of educating students to the tune of at least $1 billion per year.”
Despite the FBRC findings, the State has not sufficiently increased the foundation amount. The result is the same “bleak portrait” of the Commonwealth’s poorest districts found over 25 years ago in McDuffy. These districts suffer severe deficits in basic resources, resulting in overcrowded classrooms, insufficient staff, high teacher turnover, crumbling facilities, lack of instructional materials and outdated materials, cuts to academic programs and extra-curricular activities, and a lack of guidance counselors and other supports for students with additional needs.
As a result of State underfunding, all Massachusetts districts are now spending over their foundation budgets. Wealthy Massachusetts districts spend an average of 160% of their foundation budgets, while the plaintiffs’ districts can only manage to spend between 110%-115%. Consequently, student outcomes in wealthier districts are significantly higher than in the Commonwealth’s poorest districts, where there are also high absenteeism and suspension rates.
The complaint details the disparate impact of chronic underfunding on educational opportunities for children of color, noting that while Massachusetts is often ranked first in the nation in education, it is ranked near the bottom for Black and Latino students.
The plaintiffs are asking the court to find the Commonwealth in violation of the Massachusetts Constitution and to order the State to fulfill its constitutional obligations to public school students.
Wendy Lecker is a Senior Attorney at Education Law Center
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