SJC rejects school-funding challenge
Declines to order hike in spending for poor districts
The state's highest court ruled yesterday against families seeking a major increase in state funding for school districts in poor communities, voting 5-2 that, after spending about $30 billion on public education over the past decade, the governor and Legislature ''are embracing and acting on their constitutional duty to educate all public school students."
''A system mired in failure has given way to one that, although far from perfect, shows a steady trajectory of progress," Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall wrote in the majority opinion.
''No one, including the defendants, disputes that serious inadequacies in public education remain. But the Commonwealth is moving systemically to address those deficiencies and continues to make education reform a fiscal priority," she wrote.
The Supreme Judicial Court's ruling in Julie Hancock v. the Commissioner of Education amounts to an endorsement of the state's 1993 Education Reform Act, which led the state to boost school spending by more than $30 billion and create a test, the MCAS, to measure academic performance.
But the decision dashes the hopes of plaintiffs, their lawyers, and some education and business leaders, who had hoped that the SJC would order changes that would lead to more money for education and a new statewide effort to improve schools.
Governor Mitt Romney and Democratic leaders on Beacon Hill had expected the high court to order them to spend millions or billions more, a prospect that was casting a pall over budget deliberations.
''Just spending more, by sending more money to the same people to do the same things, is not going to solve our problems," Romney said yesterday after the court issued its ruling. ''Money alone doesn't do it."
The lawsuit had contended that poor school districts fare worse than affluent ones by various criteria -- including quality of libraries, the number of computers in classes, or opportunities for early childhood education -- and that funding is a major factor in the disparities.
Under the school aid formula, the amount of state funding to schools varies widely, and lawyers for the plaintiffs argued that the state was violating its constitutional duty to provide an adequate education to all pupils.
In its defense, the state pointed out that it has sharply increased basic aid to schools over a decade and that policy and spending decisions should be made by the governor and Legislature, not the judiciary.
Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly, whose office defended the state, cheered the court for acknowledging the state's progress and recognizing that it is the government's responsibility to set policy on schools.
''The court recognized that it is not the court's job to run our schools, and in fact it doesn't work when they do," Reilly said.
Plaintiffs and their lawyers expressed regret and surprise. Last spring, Superior Court Judge Margot Botsford issued a sweeping report to the SJC, recommending that the state figure the cost of educating all children in key school systems in the lawsuit. She also recommended various steps to help struggling schools, including creating free pre-school for the neediest 3- and 4-year-olds.
Romney said yesterday he would ask for more spending on afterschool programs, lengthening the school day, and early childhood education. Democratic leaders have already said they want to spend more on early childhood programs.
But to advocates of more school funding, the suit's dismissal removes leverage to force the state to act.
Maurice Hancock -- father of lead plaintiff Julie Hancock, a Brockton High School junior -- said he and others would lobby the Legislature to aid them.
''How much longer do these children need to be patient?" asked Hancock yesterday, sitting next to his daughter at Brockton High. ''We're hoping that the Legislature will still recognize that this is a real issue."
The Hancocks and other plaintiffs came from 19 school systems and cited what they viewed as inequities between their schools and those in wealthier towns, such as Brookline and Wellesley.
The plaintiffs say their schools' woes include high dropout rates, low test scores, crowded classes, and inadequate materials. The case primarily focused on Brockton, Lowell, Springfield, and Winchendon.
Yesterday, Maurice Hancock pulled his 16-year-old daughter out of math class to deliver the news that they lost the case. She has been the lead plaintiff since fifth grade.
Julie Hancock, who spoke at a press conference at Brockton High, said that her classes have more than 30 students each, that more than 4,000 students compete for 32 computers to write term papers after school, and that some textbooks are outdated. ''Nothing has changed," she said.
The lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, Michael D. Weisman, pointed out that the SJC said the state still has an obligation to help schools in poor communities. ''The only thing the Legislature ought to take away from today's decision is that the court is going to give them some time to get the job done," he said.
Marshall made it clear that it wasn't a decision for all time, he said. But Weisman acknowledged that yesterday's ruling was a far cry from the high court's decision in the 1993 McDuffy case, which ordered the state to close the school spending gap between rich and poor districts.
The threat of that lawsuit helped spur the Legislature to craft the Education Reform Act, which was passed three days after the McDuffy ruling.
Marshall wrote in the majority opinion that the four main school systems cited in the suit had seen ''striking increases in their school spending." Citing Botsford's report, Marshall said that annual net school spending nearly doubled in Springfield, Lowell, Brockton, and Winchendon between 1993 and 2003.
Statewide, the total spent on kindergarten to Grade 12 rose from $3.6 billion in 1993, before the reform act, to $10.1 billion in fiscal year 2002.
But Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said the formula created in 1993 to distribute aid to school systems is still inadequate. The state needs to do more to help poor, urban school districts, which deal with more complicated problems than other systems.
''The cost of educating many urban children is greater," he said.
Besides the chief justice, Justices Francis X. Spina, Robert J. Cordy, Judith A. Cowin, and Martha B. Sosman voted with the majority. Justices John M. Greaney and Roderick L. Ireland dissented.
In the dissenting opinion, Greaney wrote, ''Acute inadequacies exist in the educational programs of the four focus districts . . ." and the plaintiffs should get relief, and the state should conduct a study to see what it would cost to help them.
Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll said schools can always use more money, but he cautioned that the need today is to get schools to spend the money they have more effectively. ''There's been tremendous progress these past 10 years, and the courts have acknowledged that," Driscoll said. ''Our job is hardly done. We have got a long way to go."
The Hancock decision makes it clear that the state could end up back in court if it fails to improve schools, and state leaders are aware of that, Reilly said. ''The achievement gaps are unacceptable. We will all be watching. These kids, they deserve a shot."
Staff writers Kathy McCabe, Tracy Jan, and Frank Phillips contributed to this report.