New round of litigation over school funding adequacy

New round of litigation over school funding adequacy

(Mass.) Fourteen years after the Massachusetts high court declared school funding on the road to adequacy, a coalition of parents, teachers and advocate groups have revived litigation arguing lawmakers are failing kids.

The suit, filed late last week, accuses James Peyser, education secretary and other appointees of Gov. Charlie Baker, as well as the state board of education, of failing to meet constitutional obligations to provide “an adequately-funded education to all its children, enabling them to become ‘free citizens on whom the Commonwealth may rely’ to ensure the functioning of our democracy and society.”

The question of school funding adequacy has been a focus of debate in many states as well as more than a few class-action lawsuits. Most state constitutions, like Massachusetts’, has language outlining the need of the Legislature to provide enough money for schools to properly prepare students for high school graduation and beyond.

In many cases, however, the courts have not found a constitutional requirement. When it has been found, often, judges have ruled that lawmakers have broad discretion to define ‘adequacy.’

The history in Massachusetts, however, would seem to favors the plaintiffs.

In 1993, the state’s Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the state constitution does indeed require an adequate level of funding for schools and that the formula being used at the time for distributing state funds violated that mandate. Only a few days later, the Legislature passed a revised system that raised minimum appropriations.

In 2005, however, another challenge was filed, but this time the court found that while some children were not getting all that they needed, overall, the system was greatly improved and on a “steady trajectory of progress.”

Not now, said Juan Cofield, president of the New England Area Conference of the NAACP, which is among the plaintiffs in the new case.

“Education rights are civil rights and this complaint documents in stark detail the neglect that persists in public schools for children of color and poor students throughout this state,” he said in a statement. “Disparities between the wealthiest and the poorest districts are widening, and students in underfunded school districts are being denied the education they are constitutionally guaranteed.”

Among the districts that the suit points to as evidence of state failings is Chelsea, where the median income is about $20,000 less than the state as a whole and schools serve a majority of students that are considered high-needs and economically disadvantaged.

Of the district’s 413 full-time teachers, almost 36 percent have less than three years of experience. The district has less than five social workers and psychologists for every 1,000 students; there is no licensed librarian; and just one counselor for every 500 students.

“The Legislature and the governor know or should have known of the impacts of the present school financing system,” said Gladys Vega, executive director of the Chelsea Collaborative, another plaintiff in the case and an advocate for Latino families in the district.

“They continued to operate the present system and permit the stark disparities in the educational opportunities and outcomes for students of color,” she said in a statement.

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