New white paper outlines Commonwealth's failure to meet our constitutional requirements to our students
In the McDuffy case of the early 1990s and again in the Hancock case of the early 2000s, a coalition of public education stakeholders named the Council for Fair School Finance brought the state of Massachusetts to court to demand the constitutionally mandated quality education that is the right of all students.
On April 9, a newly re-formed Council for Fair School Finance released a white paper titled Unfulfilled Promises: The Unconstitutional State of Our Public School Funding System, which outlines the current circumstances in our schools and how they reveal the failure of the Commonwealth to meet our state Constitution’s demand that we provide a quality education for every student.
“We refuse to let another generation of students enter public schools that are unconstitutionally underfunded and deeply inequitable. While the Council for Fair School Finance is glad to see the issue of public education funding at the top of the legislative agenda this year, merely taking action will not be enough to fix the racial, economic, and geographic disparities that have harmed students for more than a decade,” said Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights. “We expect and demand the resources necessary to give every student the high-quality education they are entitled to under our Constitution. If litigation is needed to achieve that demand, the council is fully prepared to move forward.”
The white paper explains how the Commonwealth’s failure to sufficiently fund public education violates two major substantive provisions of the Massachusetts Constitution: the Education Clause, which states, “It shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences,” and the Equal Rights Amendment, which forbids the government from denying the Commonwealth’s children equal treatment under the law based on race, ethnicity or national origin.
The paper concludes, “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 Council is prepared to seek redress in the courts.”
The Council for Fair School Finance is a nonprofit coalition of stakeholders in preK-12 education. The coalition includes the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, the Boston Teachers Union, Lawyers for Civil Rights, the New England Area Conference of the NAACP, the Massachusetts Association of School Committees and Citizens for Public Schools.
“We refuse to let another generation of students enter public schools that are unconstitutionally underfunded and deeply inequitable."
The council fought in the courts for fair school funding from the late 1970s until 2005, litigating the McDuffy and Hancock cases. In a recent op-ed, Council for Fair School Finance member and Fall River School Superintendent Matthew Malone wrote, “Public school students cannot wait any longer for the governor and the Legislature to act: Our student achievement gaps are growing wider each day. Our coalition is ready to go to court, and will do so if our state’s elected leaders do not act to fulfill the Commonwealth’s obligation before yet another class of students enters schools that are being underfunded and perpetuate the status quo.”
“Decades ago, we formed the Council for Fair School Finance because Massachusetts wasn’t meeting its constitutional requirement to support our public school students. Today, it’s abundantly clear that the state is once again failing to give many students the quality education they are entitled to by law,” said Norma Shapiro, founder and former president of the Council for Fair School Finance. “The level of inequity in our school funding system is unacceptable, and it’s time to hold the state accountable — through the courts if necessary.”
“Over a quarter-century ago, the Supreme Judicial Court held in McDuffy v. Secretary of the Executive Office of Education that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts had an affirmative duty under the Massachusetts Constitution to provide its students with a high-quality education,” the white paper states. “In the 2005 Hancock decision, the court told the Commonwealth’s executive and legislative branches to keep working toward accomplishing what the Education Clause commands. Since Hancock, however, the Commonwealth has faltered.”
“While Beacon Hill’s agenda for much of the past two decades has intensified so-called accountability measures that do not involve new money for districts, schools, educators and students, the funding system remains broken, and at this point constitutionally inadequate,” the paper continues. “It leaves too many districts to struggle with large class sizes and inadequate educational resources, such as understaffed libraries, unavailable Advanced Placement classes, or inadequate extracurricular options. It means outmoded or insufficient technology for learning. It results in annual school budget shortfalls. It leads to insufficient bilingual and special needs teachers and inadequate paraprofessional support to meet the needs of high-need student populations.”
Addressing how the Commonwealth’s failure to adequately fund public education violates the Equal Rights Amendment, the white paper states: “The Commonwealth’s funding formula 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. This inadequate school funding formula has led to a wrenching reality: segregated schools where access to the educational opportunities is dictated by the color of one’s skin. As long as the Legislature knowingly and deliberately maintains the current formula, funding inadequacies will continue to have an unconstitutionally disproportionate effect on students of color.”