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SJC set to weigh school funding

Hundreds of millions in state aid at stake

The Supreme Judicial Court will hear arguments tomorrow about whether the state is shortchanging children in its poorest school systems in a lawsuit that could have sweeping implications for the way Massachusetts finances public education.

If the state's highest court agrees with a Suffolk Superior Court judge that Massachusetts is failing to give enough money to poor districts, the ruling could force the state to overhaul the way it funds schools and require that hundreds of millions of dollars more be spent on education.

The lawsuit, which is being argued 11 years after the SJC declared that Massachusetts had violated its constitutional duty to provide an adequate education to all public schoolchildren, could also influence similar cases pending in 23 other states, legal specialists say.

"This is an extremely important case," said Victoria J. Dodd, a professor of law at Suffolk University who has studied school-funding cases across the country. "The result will influence our Massachusetts public education system and thus will affect the quality of life and the economy for decades to come."

The landmark lawsuit, which was filed by families in 19 school systems, says the state has failed to close the gap in educational opportunities available to children in wealthy and poor school districts, despite restructuring the financing formula following the 1993 decision and pumping billions of dollars into Massachusetts' 1,900 public schools.

Poor districts fare worse than affluent ones, according to the suit, whether the benchmark is class size or quality of libraries, the number of computers in classrooms, or opportunities for early childhood education. As a result, the lawsuit says, students in poor districts are more likely to have lower MCAS and SAT scores and higher dropout rates.

The plaintiffs won a major victory in April, when Judge Margot G. Botsford ruled that poorer school districts have made progress, but are still not providing the education to which students are entitled. She recommended changes including establishment of free preschool programs for 3- and 4-year-olds from low-income families, construction of adequate school buildings, and determination of how much money is needed for children with special needs, among other things. She also called for better leadership in some school districts named in the suit. If the SJC agrees with Botsford's judgment, state education officials could be required to carry out her recommended remedies.

As is customary, each side will have only 15 minutes to make arguments before the SJC. The court's guidelines recommend that the justices issue a ruling within 130 days. The plaintiffs say they hope the court will issue a ruling early next year.

Michael D. Weisman, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, said Thursday that Botsford acted after hearing overwhelming evidence that the state is neglecting its duty to provide an adequate education, an obligation enshrined in the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights by its author, John Adams.

"I don't want to predict what the Supreme [Judicial] Court is going to do," said Weisman, who was also the lead lawyer in the 1993 case. "Judge Botsford has made very clear what she thinks needs to be done."

The attorney general's office, which is representing the state, and Heidi B. Perlman -- a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, the defendant in the suit -- declined to comment. In legal briefs, however, the state contends that many of the schools in poor districts have improved markedly. The state argues that Botsford's recommendations represent an intrusion by the judiciary into legislative and executive functions.

The state also contends that funding is not the main reason students in some school districts outperform students in others.

"Across-the-board funding increases were part of the solution to the problems of the Massachusetts public schools in 1993, but they are not the right solution in 2004," said a brief by the attorney general's office. "The trial evidence is clear that, at this stage of education reform, the pressing need instead is for accountability and targeted assistance."

Edward Moscovitch, one of the authors of the current school-funding formula and a witness for the state at the trial presided over by Botsford, agreed.

"The single biggest thing holding us back is not money," said Moscovitch, president of Cape Ann Economics, a consulting firm. He said the problem is that "the vast majority of principals and teachers don't . . . know how to turn schools around, and the [Education] Department has not been in a position to implement a program to help them to do it."

The dispute over school funding dates to 1978, when families in 16 of the state's poorest towns contended that their right to an equal education was being denied.

Three days after the SJC's 1993 decision, Governor William F. Weld signed the Education Reform Act, initiating a decade of overhauls. The changes resulted in the MCAS exam, statewide curriculum standards, tougher teacher certification rules, and billions spent to close the gap between wealthy and poor school systems. The state's basic aid to schools increased 12 percent each year over the past decade, from $1.3 billion to $3.2 billion. Schools added elective courses, reduced class sizes, and provided summer school.

Under the current school aid formula, the amount of state money a school receives varies widely, depending on how much cash a community can raise for education through property taxes. For example, Lawrence, where property values are comparatively low, gets 99 percent of its school funding from the state. Weston, with some of the highest property values in Massachusetts, gets about 9 percent of its school funding from the state. On average, basic state education aid constitutes 44 percent of the amount that school systems spend per pupil.

Those changes did not go far enough, said families from 19 school districts in poorer communities, who renewed the legal challenge to the state in 1999. The districts are Barnstable, Belchertown, Brockton, East Bridgewater, Fitchburg, Gill-Montague Regional, Holyoke, Leicester, Lowell, Lynn, Mashpee, Orange, Revere, Rockland, Sandwich, Springfield, Taunton, Uxbridge, and Winchendon.

Their suit is called Hancock v. Commissioner of Education, for Julie Hancock, an 11th-grader at Brockton High School.

During a 78-day fact-finding trial before Botsford, both sides focused on four key districts: Brockton, Springfield, Lowell, and Winchendon. Lawyers compared them to three affluent districts used for the same purpose in the 1993 case: Brookline, Concord, and Wellesley.

Norma L. Shapiro -- the president of the Council for Fair School Finance, which helped bring the suit -- said the evidence showed that poor school districts are "much better than they were beforehand . . . but that's still not sufficient."

Dianne Alperin, principal of the Charles W. Morey School in Lowell and one of the witnesses for the families, pointed out last week the kind of problems faced by the school, which serves 420 children from prekindergarten through the fourth grade.

The red brick building is 114 years old and looks its age. A girls' bathroom is missing a patch of floor tiles. A boys' bathroom is missing part of the door. The main three-story building is inaccessible to students who use wheelchairs; a second-grader broke her leg last year and had to be transferred to another school because there is no elevator. Two cinderblock closets serve as the office for a social worker and as a room where children take tests to see if they need special education.

"The school was supposed to be torn down and rebuilt about two years ago, but it's since been postponed because of a lack of funding," Alperin said.

Half of the students at Morey are of Cambodian, Laotian, Vietnamese, and Chinese descent, and many entered school with English as their second language. Unlike children from wealthier communities, relatively few children at Morey have been to preschool, said Alperin, who previously worked in the Ipswitch and Topsfield school systems. Morey's preschool program can only accommodate about 16 children; many applicants have to be turned away.

"It would be nice to offer [preschool] to every student who was going to enter your building, because you could start to build a relationship with families when the children are little, and that serves you well on many fronts," Alperin said.

Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jsaltzman@globe.com.

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