Lawsuit challenges state’s education funding system


BOSTON (AP) — Frustrated by the lack of progress on legislation to revamp Massachusetts’ education funding, advocates raised the stakes Thursday by asking a court to declare that students in underfunded school districts are being deprived of their right to an equal education.

The lawsuit against state education officials was filed with the Supreme Judicial Court on behalf of organizations including the NAACP and more than a dozen parents around the state.

Critics say the formula for distributing education funds, which itself sprung from a lawsuit in 1993, is outdated and responsible for a widening gap in academic achievement between students from suburban communities and their less-advantaged urban counterparts.

While bills aimed at addressing the inequities have been introduced by Democratic lawmakers and Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, no consensus has been reached. Negotiations between the House and Senate over compromise legislation collapsed at the end of last year’s legislative session, though behind-the-scene talks are believed to be continuing.

“Today, far too many low-income children and children of color attend essentially segregated schools with fewer teachers, resources, classes and opportunities than their wealthy and predominantly white peers,” said Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights.

The lawsuit, Espinoza-Madrigal said, addresses the “21st century version of separate and unequal.” The Legislature “has been indifferent, unresponsive and willfully blind to the growing disparities in our communities and across our state,” he charged.

Messages seeking comment were left with Democratic legislative leaders.

Baker declined Thursday to comment on the lawsuit but expressed hope the issues would be resolved soon.

“I think everybody agrees that there are changes (in) the formula that need to get done and part of the reason we filed a bill with our budget, when we filed that back in January, was to kick start this conversation,” Baker said.

The governor’s bill would provide $1.1 billion in additional education funding split between the state and local communities over the next seven years. Critics who say Baker’s proposal would provide too little state money and take too long to implement have lined up behind a competing measure filed by Democratic Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, of Boston, and Democratic Rep. Aaron Vega, of Holyoke.

Asked if passage of legislation would result in the lawsuit being dropped, Juan Cofield, president of the New England Area Conference of the NAACP, said merely getting “something” would not be enough and the court case would be pursued until state officials do “what is required by the constitution.”

A 2015 report from a special commission found the spending formula was underfunding school districts by $1 billion to $2 billion annually. Bearing the brunt of that shortfall were low-income, minority and immigrant students who are learning to speak English, and children with special needs. The report also cited huge, unanticipated increases in health insurance costs for school districts.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit include parents from Chelsea, Chicopee, Fall River, Haverhill, Lowell and Springfield, urban communities with large numbers of low-income and minority students. Several complained of sending their children to dilapidated schools with too few teachers and educational resources.

Also represented was Danielle Anderson, a school committee member and parent of two elementary school children in Orange, a rural town with one of state’s lowest median incomes.

“Our children are going to school with a leaky roof. The furnace blew last winter. My son’s biggest field trip last year was walking down the street to visit the fire department,” said Anderson.

The district is currently facing a choice between laying off four teachers or cutting art, music, gym and computer classes, Anderson said, and may be forced to do both if residents reject a property tax override.

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