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Mass. Education Funding System Violates Student Rights, Lawsuit Alleges

Parents and students from seven Massachusetts communities say they filed the lawsuit because legislative efforts to get more funding for their schools are taking too long and don’t go far enough. (Carrie Jung/WBUR)
Parents and students from seven Massachusetts communities say they filed the lawsuit because legislative efforts to get more funding for their schools are taking too long and don’t go far enough. (Carrie Jung/WBUR)

A group of parents and education advocates filed a lawsuit in state court Thursday over what they're calling inadequate school funding. The plaintiffs argue the current school funding system, which is more than 25 years old, isn't keeping up with their students' needs and is creating a system of "separate but unequal schools."

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 nonprofit Chelsea Collaborative.

"We are asking the Supreme Judicial Court to recognize that our state Legislature has not cherished public education as our constitution requires," said Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, the executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, the attorneys representing the group. "Instead the Legislature has been indifferent, unresponsive and willfully blind to the growing disparities across our state."

At a press conference Thursday afternoon, the plaintiffs in the case shared stories of how funding shortages in their schools are impacting their families. Danielle Andersen, a parent from the rural community of Orange, said her local school doesn't have the resources to support a paraprofessional for her son, who suffered prenatal trauma and has special needs.

"I have to go to school twice a week and act as his one-on-one [teacher]," she explained. "The school wants to be compliant, and the fact of the matter is they're trying to figure out how. The money is just not there."

The group said much of the current legislation being considered on Beacon Hill right now to address school funding disparities doesn't go far enough. They didn't offer specific details on how they'd like the funding formula to be updated, but they did say the recommendations put forth by the Foundation Budget Review Commission, a group tasked with reviewing the funding formula in 2015, would be a good place to start.

"We want to democratize and modernize the school funding system so it meets the needs that we have," added Juan Cofield, the president of the New England Area Conference of the NAACP.

Municipal officials from Brockton, New Bedford and Worcester have been threatening a similar lawsuit over the state's foundation budget formula.

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 are before the Education Committee, which was flooded with testimony on the bills during a March 22 public hearing.

The lawsuit also comes a day after the Legislature voted 147-48 to advance a constitutional amendment adding a 4% tax on household income above $1 million, 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.

State education officials who are listed as defendants in the lawsuit, including Education Secretary Jim Peyser and Commissioner Jeff Riley, said they could not comment on pending litigation.

Material from State House News Service was used in this report.

Related:

Carrie Jung Twitter Reporter, Edify
Carrie is a senior education reporter with Edify.

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