Parents will drop lawsuit as lawmakers move to fully fund initial year of landmark education bill

Plaintiffs from low-income communities, education advocates will monitor implementation of new education funding commitment over next seven years

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BOSTON – With Governor Baker and Massachusetts legislators moving to fully fund the initial year of the landmark education funding bill passed last year, parents who brought a lawsuit against state education officials and the state board of education last summer will drop their case, Mussotte v. Peyser. Governor Baker’s budget proposal, filed last week, would increase state education funding by $355 million in FY2021, the first year of a seven-year phase-in period for the funding commitments in the Student Opportunity Act.

The parents praised the Student Opportunity Act, which would increase annual state education funding by $1.5 billion over inflation, as a major boost for students in low-income communities throughout Massachusetts. However, they noted that while the Student Opportunity Act changed the state’s funding formula for local public schools, the Legislature must still allocate the necessary funds each year to meet the requirements of the formula. The plaintiffs were pleased that the Governor proposed the appropriate level of funds for next year’s budget, but promised to closely monitor implementation of the bill over the next seven years. 

“The funding promised by the Student Opportunity Act, as long as it reaches the classroom, will be transformative for students in Massachusetts. But legislative leaders have already predicted a difficult road ahead in fully funding this promise,” said Denise DaPonte Mussotte, the mother of four Fall River students who are plaintiffs in the case. “We will keep a close watch on Beacon Hill over the next seven years to make sure lawmakers fulfill their pledge to provide every student with a high-quality education no matter where they live, their family income, the color of their skin, the language they speak at home or the services they need to succeed.” 

In June, Mussotte joined more than a dozen children and their parents from Chelsea, Chicopee, Fall River, Haverhill, Lowell, Orange, and Springfield, as well as the New England Area Conference of the NAACP and the Chelsea Collaborative to file the lawsuit known as Mussotte v. Peyser with the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The lawsuit accuses state education officials of ignoring the constitutional mandate requiring the Commonwealth to fund a quality education for all students. 

“Students in low-income urban and rural communities across the state currently attend schools that have been deeply underfunded for their entire lives,” said Gladys Vega, Executive Director of the Chelsea Collaborative. “By dropping this lawsuit today, we are giving state leaders the chance to fix the racial, economic, and geographic disparities that have harmed students for more than a decade. We will remain vigilant as the new legislation is implemented.” 

The lawsuit argued that the Commonwealth’s school funding system, including the failure to update the school funding formula for more than 25 years, deprived the plaintiffs’ school districts of adequate resources to educate all students, thus violating the state’s constitutional mandate under the Education Clause to “cherish” education. 

It further argued that districts’ reliance on property taxes to supplement inadequate state funding results in discrimination against students in low-income, property-poor communities, in violation of the Commonwealth’s Equal Rights Amendment. Because students of color are more likely to live in predominantly low-income, property-poor communities, the lawsuit argued that the Commonwealth’s school funding system has a racially disparate impact on their education, in further violation of the Equal Rights Amendment. 

“This case argued that Massachusetts was failing to meet its constitutional obligation to educate all students, and that this failure disproportionately impacted students of color,” said Juan Cofield, President of the New England Area Conference of the NAACP. “Now, lawmakers have a once-in-a-generation chance to implement the new school funding bill in a way that provides all students, regardless of their race, with a quality education. If they do not live up to their constitutional obligations, we will be ready to return to court on behalf of the children of Massachusetts.” 

The defendants in the case include Secretary of Education James Peyser, Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Jeffrey C. Riley, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Chair of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education Katherine Craven, the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, and Secretary of Administration and Finance Michael J. Heffernan

The lawsuit was developed by the Council for Fair School Finance, which has a history of advancing the cause of education through the courts. Over a quarter-century ago, in a landmark case brought by the CFSF, the court held in McDuffy v. Secretary of the Executive Office of Education, that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has a duty under the Massachusetts constitution to provide students with a high-quality education. 

When the lawsuit was filed in June, several parents spoke about the impact of state underfunding on their children’s schools. 

“Chelsea is one of the poorest communities in Massachusetts and it sits within a stone’s throw of Massachusetts’ capital city,” said Mayra Balderas, a parent from Chelsea whose son is a plaintiff in the case. “For years, the state has ignored the education needs of children here, including my 10-year-old. Our constitution requires the state to educate all students, no matter where they live, their family income, the color of their skin, the language they speak at home or the services they need to succeed.” 

The nearly 100-page complaint documented, in painstaking detail, numerous disturbing facts about the failures of our public education funding system. It cited the bipartisan Foundation Budget Review Commission report, issued in 2015, which conclusively found that significant additional funding was needed in four key areas: services for low-income students, students with disabilities, and English language learners, as well as employee and retiree health insurance. The Student Opportunity Act, once fully implemented, will fully address all four key recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission report. The legislation will provide millions of dollars more for the highest-poverty districts whose students have the greatest needs.

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The Council for Fair School Finance is a nonprofit coalition of stakeholders in preK-12 education that includes the following members: American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, the Boston Teachers UnionCitizens for Public SchoolsLawyers for Civil Rights, the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, the Massachusetts PTA, the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the New England Area Conference of the NAACP.