A finding for fair schools
SUFFOLK SUPERIOR Court Judge Margot Botsford ruled yesterday that the state is failing in its constitutional duty to provide effective public education in all communities without regard to income. Her lengthy ruling demands that Massachusetts education officials work harder to ensure that students in low-income cities and towns have the same opportunities as wealthier students to succeed in school.
The judge listened to more than 100 witnesses and examined 1,000 exhibits before finding the state wanting in a case brought by 19 familes challenging the state's school financing formula. The plaintiffs' lead attorney, Michael Weisman, called Botsford's ruling a "spectacular victory" for public school children from economically disadvantaged districts. But there are no easy remedies in Botsford's decision to address the academic gaps between racial minorities and white students or between poor and rich. That hard work is still ahead.
Key portions of the ruling should grab the attention of Governor Romney and the Legislature. Botsford cites staffing levels at the state's Department of Education that are less than half what they were in 1980. It falls on this shrinking staff to find remedies for underperforming students while improving the state's foundation formula, which determines how much schools should spend per pupil to meet the minimum requirements of the state's education reform law.
"The department's own lack of capacity impedes its ability effectively to help the local districts with theirs," Botsford writes. Enlarging a state bureaucracy isn't a popular activity. But elected leaders need to see that it will be necessary to provide relief.
Botsford made a less compelling case when charging education officials with the task of determining costs for correctives. She appears to mandate that educators expand their curriculum and assessment efforts in the areas of health, arts, and foreign languages. How such efforts address the academic achievement gap between rich and poor students, as evidenced by their performance on the math and English sections of the high-stakes Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests, is unclear.
Botsford is on point, however, when requiring state officials to determine the costs of providing preschool programs for 3- and 4-year-olds from low-income families. Several of the judge's "should be considered" categories, such as remedial tutoring and extra help for low-income and bilingual students, are worthy of elevation to the "must be covered" list.
Massachusetts is building a reputation for education reform. But Botsford's findings, which now go to Justice John Greaney of the Supreme Judicial Court, serve as a reminder that education reform is still unfinished business.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.