Mayors say they’ll sue over education aid if Beacon Hill doesn’t act

Gateway City officials say they're at the breaking point in funding schools

LEADERS ON BEACON HILL, who say they are committed this year to revamping the state’s 26-year-old education funding formula, got an extra nudge from a group of municipal leaders who say they’re prepared to file a lawsuit to force more state funding for schools if lawmakers don’t act.

At a briefing in a downtown Boston office, the mayors and school leaders from Brockton, New Bedford, and Worcester said they hope the funding issue is resolved through legislation, but they are prepared to take action if it isn’t.

“We would view a legislative solution as the best possible outcome, but I think we’re also now grounded in reality and have been working hard and are prepared to go back and seek relief from the courts if that’s what it’s going to take to get the same education for our kids that other children in the Commonwealth receive,” said Brockton Mayor Bill Carpenter.

The back-to-court reference from Carpenter is an allusion to the lawsuit Brockton led in the 1980s that went to the Supreme Judicial Court and served as prod to the Legislature to dramatically redesign school funding through the Education Reform Act of 1993. The law brought a huge infusion of new state aid, much of it directed to urban districts educating lots of low-income students, along with rigorous new accountability standards for student performance.

But districts have complained for years that the funding formula is not adequately keeping pace with rising costs, particularly for health care expenses, special education, English language learners, and low-income students. In 2015, a state commission issued a sweeping set of recommendations for new funding after concluding that the formula was shortchanging districts by anywhere from $1 to $2 billion annually.

Lawmakers have yet to act on the recommendations, however, with an effort last year falling apart at the end of the legislative session when House and Senate negotiators couldn’t reach agreement. New bills were filed this year by legislators and Gov. Charlie Baker, with a renewed vow by all to see legislation pass this year to revamp the formula.

Leaders of the three urban school districts say they are struggling with the twin challenges of inadequate funding and dramatic increases in the demographic groups that require more resources to educate. The statewide population of English language learners and students whose first language is not English has more than doubled since 1993, with much of the increase concentrated in Gateway Cities. In Brockton, meanwhile, 80 percent of students live in households with income at or below the federal poverty level.

The demographic issues that prompted the earlier lawsuit, “have only accelerated since,” said New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell.

Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll was also at the briefing and voiced support for the funding push.

In Worcester, officials say they operate the district with 773 fewer teachers than called for under the original education funding formula.

In Brockton, where that teacher gap stands at 414, superintendent Kathleen Smith said the district can only afford $1 per pupil for materials and supplies, while Weston spends close to $275 per student. “We have social studies books that do not have 9/11 in them,” she said. “That’s unacceptable.”

“We’re now at the breaking point,” said Carpenter, the Brockton mayor. “We’re here now talking about a lawsuit because we know we cannot do one more year of this without decimating out school systems. We’ve cut everything we can cut. We’ve closed schools, we’ve laid off teachers, we’ve eliminated electives. If you can cut it, we’ve cut it.  I think to a certain extent we almost feel backed into a corner, that this is our last option.”

Patrick Moore, a partner at Hemenway and Barnes and part of a legal team of attorneys handling the case pro bono, said the SJC’s ruling in the 1993 McDuffy case that set the stage for the Education Reform Act provides a strong precedent for a potential suit.  

He said  the state “is backsliding” in meeting its legal obligation to provide all students an adequate education. “We are here because the state has a moral imperative to address those shortcomings, and it also has a constitutional responsibility to ensure that that same fate does not befall a student who enters school in 2019,” said Moore.

The mayors and other officials would not provide a firm deadline for action on Beacon Hill to stave off a lawsuit, but made it clear they were looking for a legislative solution to begin taking shape by summer.

“If that hasn’t happened, we’re in a position to take a different approach,” said Tripp Jones, who has been coordinating efforts among the urban officials and served as staff director for the Legislature’s education committee when it crafted the 1993 reform law. (Jones is also a co-founder of MassINC, the nonpartisan public policy think tank that publishes CommonWealth.)

The officials also wouldn’t pinpoint what level of new funding by the Legislature would be deemed adequate. The leaders said, however, that a starting point should be a report prepared by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, which said roughly $1 billion in new state aid is needed to properly account for shortcomings brought on by the current formula.

A bill cosponsored by Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz and state Reps. Mary Keefe and Aaron Vega would increase state funding by a similar amount, while a bill filed by the governor would increase state aid by less than half that amount once fully implemented.

While there is broad agreement on the funding increases needed to account for rising costs for employee health care and special education services, the bills differ markedly in how much additional aid they provide for low-income students.

The governor’s 2020 budget proposal as well the spending plans approved by the House and released yesterday by the Senate Ways and Means Committee all significantly increase state education aid to communities. But the mayors made clear that they are looking for a long-term solution that phases-in continued funding increases over several years.

Legislative leaders and administration officials declined to comment directly on the potential lawsuit.

“The governor’s budget proposal and education funding legislation directs significant increases to the highest-need communities that educate the most economically disadvantaged students, including communities such as Brockton, New Bedford and Worcester, and represents a historic investment in communities that struggle with persistent achievement gaps,” said a spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Education.

Senate President Karen Spilka said in a statement that the education committee’s “goal is to release legislation within the coming months that fully implements the recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission.”

Rep. Alice Peisch, co-chair of the education committee, said, “given the progress that has been made to date, I continue to be optimistic that the Joint Committee will soon report out a bill that addresses all of the recommendations and ensures that those students with the highest needs are well served.”

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Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Former state education secretary Paul Reville said the mayors are striking the right balance in their approach, which brings an added “element of pressure” to the debate on Beacon Hill.

I think they’ve got every reason in the world to have a sense of urgency about this, yet they’re being appropriately deferential to both the governor and Legislature, who’ve said they’re committed to getting this done,” said Reville, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “But they’re saying, you can’t just kick this down the road. We’re hoping you can get a successful resolution, but if not we’re prepared to take it to the next level.”