A Massachusetts judge ruled last week that while the state has spent billions of dollars on K-12 education over the past decade and has successfully set rigorous academic standards, the state must do more to help students from low-income families in its poorest districts.
The 358-page decision from Suffolk Superior Court Judge Margot Botsford found that the students from 19 school districts who brought the case were being shortchanged by the current school funding system.
She wrote that the school aid system has, among other problems, resulted in inadequate facilities, overcrowded classrooms, and an uneven implementation of state curriculum standards.
The decision represents the remedy phase of a 1993 school finance ruling from the state’s highest court, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, which found the state was not fulfilling its constitutional duty to provide an adequate education for all students.
That case, McDuffy v. Secretary of the Executive Office of Education, led to the state’s landmark education reform act in 1993. The law ushered in academic standards tied to an accountability system and called for major increases in school funding. Over the past decade, Massachusetts has spent about $30 billion on K-12 education.
But in 1999, the plaintiffs returned to the high court, arguing the state still had not done enough to meet its obligation under the Massachusetts Constitution to provide an adequate education to all children.
The justices sent the case back to superior court with directions that Judge Botsford make recommendations based on the latest findings in the ongoing litigation. As part of her review, four districts—Brockton, Lowell, Springfield, and Winchedon—were established as “focus districts” seen as representative of the plaintiffs’ claims.
“When one looks at the state as a whole, there have been some impressive results in terms of improvement in overall student performance,” Judge Botsford wrote in her April 26 decision.
“Nevertheless, the factual record establishes that the schools attended by the plaintiff children are not currently implementing the Massachusetts curriculum frameworks for all students, and are not currently equipping all students with the McDuffy capabilities,” she continued. “The inadequacies of the educational program provided in the four focus districts are many and deep.”
The judge recommended that state education leaders come up with an analysis of how much money would be needed to bring the districts up to speed, provide a preschool program for 3- and 4-year-olds, and improve funding for special education and school facilities.
The recommendations will be sent to the supreme court, which will review them and make a final decision in the case.
David P. Driscoll, the state commissioner of education, said in an April 26 statement that the findings were “consistent with the efforts already under way by the administration, the legislature, and other education groups around the state. As commissioner, I am committed to providing all schools with the tools and resources they need to achieve even greater student success.”
But Rebecca McIntyre, a co-counsel for the plaintiffs, said the ruling was clear that the current approach does not go far enough.
“The most important finding is that the state is still not meeting its constitutional duty to provide all schoolchildren with a constitutionally sufficient education,” she said. “School funding is inadequate.”
State leaders must step up and recognize the need for action, she added: “I understand the legislature is claiming it’s strapped for cash, but we’re talking about a constitutional duty, and that’s not optional.”
The judge did not give a dollar figure on how much new money would be needed to address the problems.
Gov. Mitt Romney, speaking to reporters after an address to the Massachusetts Association of School Committees on April 27, said he believed that the judiciary in his state had overstepped its role when it recently recognized a right to same-sex marriage, and said he hoped that would not be the case with education.
“I’m certainly hopeful that in the area of funding for schools, they allow our state board of education, our legislature, and the rest of the executive branch to have the say,” the Republican governor told reporters.