Coalition isn’t waiting for education funding reform
At the State House, legislative leaders say they are close to settling on a new funding formula for Chapter 70 education aid to cities and towns.
But a coalition of education activists is putting their hopes for increased funding on court action. In June, the Council for Fair School Finance filed a lawsuit against state education officials alleging constitutional violations of students’ education and civil rights.
Members of the group, backed by three teachers’ unions, two civil rights groups, the Massachusetts PTA and the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, say students shouldn’t have to wait while legislators attempt to balance public school activists’ calls for increased funding against education reform proponents’ demand for greater state control over schools and school districts deemed underperforming.
“This month, students in low-income urban and rural communities across the state are returning to schools that have been deeply underfunded for these students’ entire lives,” said Maureen Colgan Posner, a Springfield teacher, in a press statement. “As legislators return to work with public education funding still on their to-do list, we cannot wait any longer to see if they will fix the racial, economic, and geographic disparities that continue to harm the students that my colleagues and I teach.”
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of more than a dozen children and their parents from Chelsea, Chicopee, Fall River, Haverhill, Lowell, Orange, and Springfield, as well plaintiffs including New England Area Conference of the NAACP and the Chelsea Collaborative, whose members include parents and students in those seven underfunded school districts. “Mussotte v. Peyser” was filed in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The lawsuit accuses the defendants of ignoring the constitutional mandate requiring the Commonwealth to fund a quality education for all students.
“Four years after the Foundation Budget Review Commission revealed the deep underfunding of our public school system, the state’s failure to correct that injustice continues,” said Juan Cofield, president of the New England Area Conference of the NAACP. “Another school year has begun, and children of color and students from low-income families all across Massachusetts are still being denied their constitutionally-guaranteed right to a quality education.”
The lawsuit was developed by the Council for Fair School Finance, which brought the McDuffy v. Secretary of the Executive Office of Education case in 1993, arguing that the state has a duty under the Massachusetts constitution to provide students with a high-quality education.
“By serving the defendants with this lawsuit, we move one step closer to achieving justice for thousands of students who have been deprived of their constitutional right to a high-quality education no matter where they live, their family income, the color of their skin, the language they speak at home or the services they need to succeed,” said Lawyers for Civil Rights Executive Director Iván Espinoza-Madrigal in a press statement.
Local funding woes
When the lawsuit was filed in June, several parents spoke about the impact of state underfunding on their children’s schools. In Fall River, a single English language learner specialist often is responsible for the language needs of 75 students, while students themselves often serve as translators for parent-teacher meetings, as the district cannot recruit, retain, or afford enough bilingual professionals to meet a growing ELL population.
In Chicopee, afterschool programs and 37 staff positions were eliminated last year, while many school buildings are over 50 years old and books that are over 30 years old are still used in class. In Chelsea, inadequate state funding means many classrooms have over 30 students, even at the elementary level.
“Chelsea is one of the poorest communities in Massachusetts and it sits within a stone’s throw of Massachusetts’ capital city,” said Mayra Balderas, a parent from Chelsea whose son is a plaintiff in the case. “For years, the state has ignored the education needs of children here, including my 10-year-old.”
The nearly 100-page complaint documents, in painstaking detail, the disturbing facts about the failures of our public education funding system. It cites the bipartisan Foundation Budget Review Commission report, issued in 2015, which conclusively found that significant additional funding was needed in four key areas: services for low-income students, students with disabilities, and English language learners, as well as employee and retiree health insurance.
In Lowell, where over 70 percent of the school district’s enrollment is made up of students of color, the district does not employ a single DESE-licensed librarian. In Springfield, where more than 75 percent of the students are considered economically disadvantaged, inadequate state funding has forced “a steady diet of budget cuts year after year.” Haverhill, where more than 45 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged, employs only one guidance counselor for every 503 students, and no social workers.
The rural community of Orange in Franklin County has the ninth lowest median income in the state. Only 16.9 percent of its residents have attained a bachelor’s degree or higher, and 55 percent of its students are considered economically disadvantaged. This year, Orange could not afford to fully staff its elementary schools, and eliminated entire classes, which increased class sizes across all of its schools. Classroom computers have not been updated since the 1990s, and the district cannot replace textbooks that are decades old and falling apart at the seams.
“Without more state education aid, students in Orange will simply fall further and further behind,” said Danielle Andersen, the mother of two Orange students who are plaintiffs in the case. “The condition of their school buildings and learning materials are deplorable. It sends them the message that we expect them to fail.”