Charter school chess match
With yesterday’s filing of a class-action lawsuit challenging state limits on charter schools, the debate over the publicly-funded, but independently operated, schools becomes a complicated chess match that will now play out on multiple levels.
The suit, brought by three prominent Boston attorneys, was six months in the making. The trio of lawyers announced in March that they intended to challenge the state charter school cap on constitutional grounds. The Massachusetts constitution says the Commonwealth must “cherish” education, a provision the lawyers say is not honored by blocking access to charter schools.
That constitutional language was a key element of the pivotal 1993 McDuffy case on school funding that was decided by the Supreme Judicial Court.
The new lawsuit was filed on behalf of five unnamed plaintiffs, referred to as “John and Jane Doe” to protect their privacy. The lawyers say they are Boston students, aged 6 to 13, who were not selected in lotteries held by oversubscribed charter schools to award seats in their schools.
The lawsuit follows a failed effort last year to get the Legislature to raise the cap on charter schools. The legislative inaction also prompted a group of charter school advocates to file paperwork to put a question on the 2016 statewide ballot that would allow for more charter schools. Proponents must now gather nearly 65,000 signatures by early December for the effort to move forward.
The ballot campaign and the lawsuit represent end-runs around the established system for sorting out an issue like charter school policy through the legislative process. But such efforts are often aimed as much at getting those legislative wheels turning as they are about bypassing the process.
In the McDuffy case from the early 1990s, which challenged the state’s system for funding schools, the Supreme Judicial Court sided with the plaintiffs. But rather than imposing a judicial fix, the court allowed the legislative process to play out on Beacon Hill, where, within days of the ruling, the Legislature enacted the landmark 1993 Education Reform Act.
The 1993 law not only brought millions of dollars in new state funding to poorer school districts, it also authorized the establishment of charter schools as part of a broad effort to bring quality education to all students in the state.
Gov. Charlie Baker says he would support a ballot question raising the charter cap, if it comes to that. But he also intends to file legislation later this year to allow more charter schools. Meanwhile, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, a charter supporter who has expressed disappointment in the Legislature’s failure to move a bill last year, says he intends to play a role in trying to getting legislation through this session.
At a joint appearance this morning at a forum sponsored by Politico, Baker and Walsh both said they’d prefer to see legislative action on the issue rather than a court ruling or ballot campaign decide the matter.
A “legislative fix” is “always the preferred option,” said Baker.
We’ll see whether the Legislature agrees.
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