Advocates want law implemented despite pandemic
WHEN MASSACHUSETTS LAWMAKERS passed a landmark rewrite of the state’s school funding formula last year, it was done with a lawsuit hanging over their heads. Now, advocates are keeping a close eye on the law’s fulfillment – and say they will consider filing another suit if the new formula is not funded this year.
“We initially filed a lawsuit because the obligations of the state were not being met,” said Juan Cofield, president of the New England Area Conference of the NAACP, which was one of the plaintiffs in the initial suit. If the state’s obligations are not met again, Cofield said, “I don’t think anybody would expect us to go home and drop it and not worry about it.”
The coronavirus pandemic has caused massive economic turmoil, raising doubts about whether the state will have the money needed to boost education aid. At the same time, advocates for students argue that the pandemic makes the money even more vital, since the abrupt switch to remote learning derailed the education of the same low-income students the new formula is supposed to help.
“The problem is that the students are worse off today than was expected when we dropped the lawsuit…and the learning at home and the use of the computers is not working for so many of the students that we’re most concerned about,” Cofield said.
As the fiscal year ends, lawmakers are on the verge of passing a one-month budget that will keep government operating through July. The House and Senate ways and means committees have not yet released a budget proposal for the full year. One of the biggest questions is what will happen to the Student Opportunity Act, the law signed by Gov. Charlie Baker in November that will provide $1.5 billion more annually for the public schools once it is fully phased in seven years from now.
This year was supposed to be the first year of funding under the new formula. In his January budget proposal, Baker proposed adding $303.8 million in new state aid to school districts, compared to the amount distributed in fiscal 2020. Because of the way Baker wanted to phase in changes related to low-income students, that represented slightly less than one-seventh of the total implementation cost, which the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center pegged at $375 million a year. But with the coronavirus pandemic tanking state revenues, Baker’s budget proposal is essentially meaningless. In the absence of an annual budget, the state plans to base its aid distributions to districts for July and August on the amounts they received this year.
“It’s the perfect storm for school systems that even as their costs are rising and they’re having to figure out totally new models for delivering the service… At that same moment, schools are confronted with the potential for drastic cuts,” said Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Boston Democrat who co-led a 2015 commission examining the school funding formula.
The coalition that brought the initial lawsuit – the Council for Fair School Finance – has reconvened and is consulting with its attorneys. Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, which is part of the coalition, said the group will consider filing suit “if they don’t give us every penny that was laid out under the law.”
The lawsuit filed by parents in June 2019 alleged that the state was failing to meet its constitutional obligation to provide all students with an adequate education. It argued that poor students and students of color were being denied an equal education compared to white, wealthier students.
Peter Enrich, a professor at Northeastern University School of Law, and one of the attorneys who filed the suit, said the coalition waited to withdraw the lawsuit until after Baker introduced his budget in order to make sure the first year of the new formula was fully funded. But in the last couple of months, attorneys have started hearing from parents who are reporting that teachers are being laid off, their children did not get the services they were entitled to this spring and they worry about the fall. “From their perspective, a promise has been broken, so they’re turning to us and asking us to look at what their legal rights are,” Enrich said.
Enrich said the same constitutional issues raised by the initial lawsuit – the right to an adequate education and disparities between districts – persist.
“The Student Opportunity Act was a big enough step in the right direction on addressing those concerns that our sense was that it was not an appropriate time to continue litigation and we should leave it to the Legislature and governor to follow through on their commitments,” Enrich said. “But if they aren’t able to or they aren’t willing to, then those constitutional issues are still out there.”
Enrich said the pandemic has further exposed the inequality in education. While he acknowledged that the stress on the state budget may lead to calls for postponing implementation of the Student Opportunity Act, he called that decision “a matter of political will.”
One parent considering the issue is Norieliz DeJesus, who works for the Chelsea Collaborative, a community organization group that was a plaintiff in the initial lawsuit and has a 7 and 8-year-old in Chelsea Public Schools. “The state needs to realize that this is a crisis, and a crisis bigger than what we were experiencing before,” DeJesus said.
DeJesus said many families in Chelsea now have new pandemic-related problems, whether hunger, illness, or inability to pay rent. Many students lack internet or parental help to participate in remote learning. DeJesus said she is prepared to come back to the State House and demand full funding “because the future of our children is at stake come the fall.”
The coalition is not the only group exploring legal remedies. Keri Rodrigues, the founder of Massachusetts Parents United, a foundation-funded parent advocacy group focused on school reforms, said her group wants to make sure an innovation fund, meant to give grants to support innovative school practices, is fully funded. They also want to ensure the state is enforcing requirements that every district develop a plan for how it will spend Student Opportunity Act money. Rodrigues said both of these are vital as districts are forced to tailor their curriculum to remote learning or some hybrid model in the fall.
Rodrigues said her organization wants to “work collaboratively” to make sure districts are held accountable for their spending, but they would consider suing if the law is ignored. “The Student Opportunity Act is law, so unless there’s a modification of the law, of course there’s recourse to say you’re not in compliance with what we fought and passed,” Rodrigues said.
For now, the school funding question remains mired in uncertainty. Rep. Alice Peisch, a Wellesley Democrat who co-chairs the Education Committee, said the biggest unknown is how much more federal funding will come to state and municipal governments. Peisch said without knowing how much money the state has, it is impossible to decide how to allocate it.
“The last time we went through a recession…we did prioritize K-12 education and I assume that we will continue to do so,” Peisch said. “What that will translate to remains to be seen.”
Peisch said state officials are likely to prioritize districts that rely most heavily on state funding, such as districts that are poorer or are facing steep declines in local revenues.
Peisch noted that without an infusion of federal money, all aspects of the budget will face cuts, and education is not the only need many families have. “The same students who are the primary beneficiaries of the Student Opportunity Act are very likely to be those that also require additional benefit from health and human services programs,” Peisch said. “So cutting that to fund education in the long run, I don’t think that’s not necessarily the answer.”
But groups like the Massachusetts Teachers Association argue that state budget writers have other choices, like raising taxes on corporations or wealthy individuals. Najimy said with uncertain funding, school districts are laying off teachers – even as new safety requirements for smaller class sizes may require more staffing.