SJC charter school ruling a wake-up call

Court denies individual right to quality education   

LAST MONTH, the Supreme Judicial Court dismissed a challenge to the Commonwealth’s charter school cap, ruling that the education clause of the Massachusetts Constitution does not provide students a right to attend public charter schools.

Arguing that Massachusetts’s cap on charter schools violated their right to a quality education, plaintiffs who had unsuccessfully entered charter school lotteries and currently attend underperforming schools had hoped to see the cap ruled unconstitutional. Yet even if students have a right to adequate education, the court asserted, that right does not extend to charter schools specifically. The ruling makes sense overall, but one element of the court’s reasoning might shock education advocates: The state’s “affirmative duty […] to provide […] ‘adequate’” education, the justices said, does not guarantee a quality education to any individual student.

As the court frames it, the Commonwealth’s requirement to provide an adequate education extends to the polity, rather than to individuals. To make a successful claim under the education clause, wrote Justice Kimberly Budd for the unanimous court, plaintiffs must fulfill two requirements: they must show both that “they have been deprived of an adequate education” and that the Commonwealth has “failed to fulfill [its] constitutionally prescribed duty to educate.”

The court fully accepted the argument that an inadequate quality of education was being offered to the defendants, whose schools underperform “at the moment.” It did not, however, accept that the Commonwealth is failing to fulfill its constitutional duty. To prove otherwise, the ruling said, plaintiffs would have to demonstrate “that the Commonwealth’s public education plan does not provide reasonable assurance of improvements for their school’s performance over a reasonable period of time.”

The key word there is “improvement.” Massachusetts’s duty to educate its children adequately can be understood as aspirational—it only requires that a plan be in place to make that goal a reality for all children. In the meantime, “there may be moments in time where particular public schools are not providing an adequate education to their students,” and those students have no clear right to Court intervention. Whether improvements occur in a reasonable timeframe is, of course, subjective, and the court’s opinion may differ substantially from that of a parent whose child gets only one chance at a quality education.

This communal approach to the education clause is not unprecedented. In making its argument, the court cites its 2005 case, Hancock v. Commissioner of Education, in which students brought an education clause complaint centered around disparities in education funding. As in this year’s charter school case, the court in Hancock found what the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education calls “serious inadequacies” in public education. In the Hancock case, the court nonetheless ruled against the students’ appeal for intervention, asserting that the Commonwealth had demonstrably “embarked on a long-term, measurable, orderly, and comprehensive process of reform to provide a high quality public education to every child.”

What matters to the court, in terms of education clause claims, is not the question of whether any individual child is receiving a quality education, but of whether the Commonwealth is making sufficient progress toward that goal for all children.

Beyond this point, the overall verdict is largely straightforward—the Court denied a constitutional right to attend charter schools, and it cannot legislate one into existence, which even charter supporters like myself will have to accept. Some elements of the court’s legislative history call for skeptical inquiry, though.

Particularly unconvincing is the implication that current “concern over the impact of charter schools on public school district revenues supports the conclusion that a primary purpose of caps on charter schools is to limit this impact.” While it is plausible to suggest that concern for traditional district revenues may have motivated the placement of caps, it is illogical to suggest that concern over this matter in 2018 provides any evidence for the caps’ intended purpose in 1993.

The court further emphasized this reasoning by quoting several legislators who in 2000 opposed lifting the cap on charter schools for fear of harming district budgets, implying that these legislators’ comments help to explain why the cap is in place. These legislators, however, cannot be understood as illuminating the intent of the Legislature, which passed the 2000 cap lift in question despite their objections. Their comments are more akin to a court case’s dissent than to a majority opinion.

Meet the Author

John Griffin

Guest Contributor, Democrats for Education Reform
The key takeaway from this decision, however, is neither its central ruling nor its legislative history. It is the affirmation that individual students have no court-recognized right to an adequate education in any given moment. To borrow a legal phrase, this shocks the conscience of a lay observer. It also should serve as a call to action.

In its 1993 McDuffy decision, the court spurred Massachusetts to reform its education system and make improvements for all children. Yet we cannot rely on the Constitution to ensure a quality education for every student in Massachusetts, here and now. To realize that vision, the task is our own.

John Griffin is a policy associate at Democrats for Education Reform—Massachusetts.