BOSTON (SNHS) – Parents and students from seven communities will join advocacy groups to sue the state over disparities in public education, alleging that chronic underfunding provided to their districts unfairly leaves wide swaths of students behind compared to their peers.
The plaintiffs include students and parents from Chelsea, Chicopee, Fall River, Haverhill, Lowell, Orange and Springfield — all diverse municipalities with above-average proportions of low-income families — as well as the NAACP’s New England Area Conference and the Chelsea Collaborative, according to a Thursday morning press release from the Council for Fair School Finance, a non-profit that includes major teachers unions.
A copy of the lawsuit was not immediately available, but the press release indicated plaintiffs plan to file it Thursday and allege “constitutional violations of students’ education and civil rights as a result of the state’s inadequate school funding system.”
Parents involved will join advocates at a press conference Thursday afternoon, scheduled for 1 p.m. in Room 428 of the State House, to discuss the case. The Council for Fair School Finance helped develop the lawsuit.
Last month, municipal officials from Brockton, New Bedford and Worcester threatened a similar lawsuit over the state’s foundation budget formula used to calculate education funding. A commission tasked with reviewing the formula in 2015 concluded that it underfunds public education by at least $1 billion a year, failing to adequately account for costs of employee health care, special education, and the additional needs of low-income students and English language learners.
The House and Senate versions of next year’s budget, currently before a conference committee, each steer major new resources into public schools for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Proposals to overhaul the funding formula — offered by Gov. Charlie Baker, Rep. Paul Tucker, and Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz and Reps. Aaron Vega and Mary Keefe — are before the Education Committee, which was flooded with testimony on the bills during a March 22 public hearing.
Sen. Jason Lewis, who co-chairs the committee, had said it hopes to release a bill this month that will be backed by “broad consensus.”
The Council for Fair School Finance was involved in two prior major lawsuits against the state over school funding, including the early-1990s McDuffy case in which the Supreme Judicial Court ruled the state had failed to meet its constitutional duty to provide an adequate education to all students. After that decision, lawmakers passed the 1993 education reform law that established the current funding formula.
The second case, Hancock v. Driscoll, was initiated in 1999 and argued that the state was still failing to meet that obligation. The high court in 2005 found the state was fulfilling its duty but that inadequacies remain.
The council in April released a paper saying it was prepared to return to court “if the educational rights of our children are not met with sufficient financial investment, particularly for those cities and towns under the most severe underfunding.”
The paper argues that insufficient funding for public education violates the Massachusetts Constitution in two ways, including the clause that establishes it as government’s duty to “cherish the interests of literature and the sciences” and the Equal Rights Amendment.
The funding formula, according to the paper, “has an unconscionable disproportionate negative impact on students of color, who are overwhelmingly more likely to live in communities that cannot contribute money over and above minimum required local contribution,” and “has led to a wrenching reality: segregated schools where access to the educational opportunities is dictated by the color of one’s skin.”
The Council for Fair School Finance includes Lawyers for Civil Rights, the New England Area Conference of the NAACP, the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, Citizens for Public Schools, and local and statewide education unions.
The lawsuit comes a day after the Legislature voted 147-48 to advance a constitutional amendment adding a 4 percent tax on household income above $1 million and directing that anticipated $2 billion in new revenue toward state education and transportation accounts. Supporters of that amendment need a second favorable vote in the next legislative session to place the proposal on the 2022 statewide ballot.