School & District Management

Massachusetts Meets Education Guarantee, State High Court Says

By John Gehring — February 23, 2005 4 min read
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Massachusetts is meeting its constitutional requirement to provide students with an adequate education and does not have to overhaul its school funding formula, the state’s highest court ruled in a closely watched case last week.

The Feb. 15 decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court surprised many observers, who had expected the court to be swayed by a lower-court ruling last spring that the aid system shortchanged the 19 plaintiff districts.

In that 358-page decision, Suffolk County Superior Court Judge Margot Botsford said that the finance method contributed to crowded classrooms, inadequate facilities, and uneven implementation of state academic standards. She recommended the state determine how much it would cost to bring the districts up to an adequate level, increase funding for special education, and improve school facilities.

But in last week’s 5-2 decision, the state supreme court ruled that despite the considerable challenges the districts face, Massachusetts has invested $30 billion in public schools over the past decade and continues to narrow funding gaps between poor and wealthy districts.

The legislative and executive branches “have committed resources to carry out their plan, have done so in fiscally troubled times, and show every indication that they will continue to increase such resources as the commonwealth’s finances improve,” wrote Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall.

“While the plaintiffs have amply shown that many children in the focus districts are not being well served by their school districts, they have not shown that the defendants are acting in an arbitrary, nonresponsive, or irrational way to meet the constitutional mandate,” Justice Marshall wrote in the majority opinion.

Julie Hancock, a junior at Brockton High School in Brockton, Mass., who was listed as the lead plaintiff on the 5-year-old lawsuit, Hancock v. Commissioner of Education, said she doesn’t need a court ruling to know about the lack of resources in her school.

“I’m surprised the justices said we should be patient,” the 16-year-old said. “None of my classes have under 30 students; most of the classrooms don’t have computers. I hope the justices made the right decision in letting the legislators go their own way.”

‘Piecemeal Agenda’

The decision came as a departure from several recent school finance cases elsewhere that have largely sided with plaintiffs and advocates arguing for increased school funding. (“States on Ropes in Finance Lawsuits,” Dec. 8, 2004.)

Last week, a New York judge ordered the state to come up with a plan to provide the New York City schools with an additional $14 billion over the next four years. (“Judge Orders Billions for Schools in N.Y.C.,” this issue.)

In Massachusetts, education leaders debated the consequences of the ruling as they waded through the decision.

Paul Reville, the executive director of the Boston-based Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy at MassInc., cautioned against interpreting the ruling as a retreat from a strong commitment to public education.

“The court said there isn’t a need for an accelerator, but they are also saying it’s not acceptable to hit the brakes,” he said. But Mr. Reville, who as the former executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, helped craft the 1993 education reform act establishing a system of state standards and assessments, said many education advocates would have preferred a different outcome.

“There’s a general belief that there does need to be some renewed commitment to education reform, and people would have welcomed the urgency of a court mandate to take action on it,” he said. “It will be harder to do now. You are more likely to see a piecemeal agenda.”

William Guenther, the president of the Boston-based Mass Insight Education, a leading education policy group in the state, expressed muted support for the ruling even as he sympathized with the plaintiffs’ arguments.

“The court case frees the state up to make its own decisions about lessons learned from the first decade of reform,” he said. “Courts haven’t been terrific in engineering detailed solutions in education, so in a sense, you could say we dodged a bullet.”

State Commissioner of Education David P. Driscoll said that while the “historic decision” reflects Massachusetts’ hard work in raising the bar for academic expectations, continued progress is needed.

Plaintiffs Disappointed

Not surprisingly, officials from the plaintiff district had much stronger reactions in interviews last week.

Joseph Burke, the superintendent of the Springfield school district, said the justices ignored compelling evidence of funding inequities between poor and wealthy districts.

“It’s not equitable when a district like Cambridge spends $18,000 per student, and we struggle at just under $8,000,” Mr. Burke said. “People can make the argument that how adults are utilizing the resources is an important factor, and I agree with them, but you can’t make decisions to spend money you don’t have.”

Close to 80 percent of the 28,000 students in the Springfield schools are poor, he added, and many don’t speak English as their first language. He thought that a favorable ruling could spark a call to action. Now, he is less hopeful. “I worry about the equity issue being sidetracked by a lack of energy,” Mr. Burke said.

Officials of the Brockton school system, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, were also disappointed.

Basan Nembirkow, the superintendent of the 17,000-student district, said that in a system where more than 40 languages are spoken and many students are immigrants, the federal No Child Left Behind Act and state assessments have pressured schools to do more with insufficient resources.

There’s a “different landscape for schools,” Mr. Nembirkow said. For example, the district spent more than $80,000 this school year transporting homeless students and finances its own police department. “The playing field isn’t even close to being level,” he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2005 edition of Education Week as Massachusetts Meets Education Guarantee, State High Court Says

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