Education Laws and Regulations
Significant Litigation in FY 2005
Following are summaries of some significant litigation involving the Board, Department and Commissioner of Education in 2005.
1. Hancock v. Commissioner of Education, 443 Mass. 428 (2005)
The Hancock case was initiated in 1999 as the successor to the 1993 decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) in McDuffy v. Secretary of Education. The McDuffy decision established the state constitutional standards against which education reform in Massachusetts will be judged. The Hancock plaintiffs, representing students in nineteen school districts, alleged that the Commonwealth was failing to provide public school students the constitutionally required education outlined in the McDuffy decision.
The case was tried in the Superior Court before Judge Botsford over a period of six months starting in June 2003. The defendants (Commissioner and Board of Education) asserted that while the SJC in McDuffy identified the Commonwealth's constitutional duty to educate its children, the court deferred to the legislative and executive branches to define the details; the standard is whether state officials have taken appropriate steps within a reasonable time, and they have done so. The defendants presented evidence that in the ten years since the McDuffy decision, the Commonwealth has met its duty by enacting and implementing the comprehensive education reform law. The four major components of education reform - substantially increased resources for schools, especially through the foundation budget; state standards such as the curriculum frameworks; assessment (MCAS); and the accountability system for schools and districts - have led to improved performance and greater educational opportunity for students. The defendants also asserted that given the current levels of educational spending in Massachusetts, identified weaknesses in some districts have more to do with local leadership, management and educational decision-making than with funding. The state's system for accountability and targeted assistance is designed to address those weaknesses.
Judge Botsford issued her report in April 2004. She acknowledged the huge increase in funding and in state involvement in preK-12 education since the passage of the Education Reform Act in 1993. She found that the state's actions in increasing financial resources, adopting high quality curriculum frameworks, implementing the MCAS tests, establishing rigorous standards for teacher certification and professional development, and designing new systems of school and district accountability have all led to positive educational results. She cited the equalization of spending between rich and poor school districts, and increasingly successful performance of the Commonwealth's students on MCAS tests and on national assessment tests, as among the positive changes. Nevertheless, she recommended that the SJC grant relief to the plaintiffs, by ordering the Commissioner and Board of Education to do a cost study to determine a new foundation budget and then implement the funding and administrative changes that result from it.
The SJC decided the case in February 2005, after reviewing Judge Botsford's report and recommendations and hearing oral argument from the parties in October 2004. The high court declined to adopt Judge Botsford's recommendations. Instead, the SJC "disposed of the case in its entirety," finding that the Commonwealth is in fact meeting its duty under the education clause of the Massachusetts Constitution. Chief Justice Margaret Marshall, in the court's majority opinion, wrote:
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.
The Chief Justice further stated:
The legislative and executive branches have shown that they have embarked on a long-term, measurable, orderly, and comprehensive process of reform to provide a high quality public education to every child. . . . They have committed resources to carry out their plan, have done so in fiscally troubled times, and show every indication that they will continue to increase such resources as the Commonwealth's finances improve. . . . The evidence here is that the Commonwealth's comprehensive statewide plan for education reform is beginning to work in significant ways.
2. Holden v. Wachusett Regional School District Comm., 445 Mass. 656 (2005)
In December 2005, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued a unanimous decision upholding the Commissioner's authority to approve or disapprove amendments to regional school district agreements. The court further held that the Board of Education's regulation on approval of regional school district agreements is fully consistent with statutory authority and was properly promulgated, and that the Commissioner properly exercised his authority in declining to approve a proposed amendment to the Wachusett Regional School District agreement.
The proposed amendment to the regional agreement had been adopted by four of the five member towns. It would have required the fifth and poorest town, Rutland, to pay far more than its per student share of the excess amount that the regional school committee voted to spend each year. The Commissioner declined to approve the proposed amendment, stating that it was contrary to the intent of the regional school district statute and school finance system under the Education Reform Act, it created an unreasonable and unjustifiable burden on a minority of member towns, and it was arithmetically ambiguous. The SJC upheld the Commissioner's authority and action in every respect.
Particularly notable in this decision is the court's strong language supporting the authority and discretion of the Commissioner and Board of Education in carrying out the purposes of state education laws. The court reasoned that the authority and discretion of the Commissioner and the Board are extensive because the Commonwealth has ultimate responsibility for the quality of public elementary and secondary education. Relying on the broad legislative grant of authority to the Board, the court stated that "the board [has] far-reaching power 'to withhold state and federal funds from school committees which fail to comply with the provisions of law relative to the operation of the public schools or any regulation' and [is] require[d] . . . to ensure 'that all school committees comply with all laws relating to the operation of the public schools.'"
3. City of Salem v. Bureau of Special Education Appeals of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education et al., 444 Mass. 476 (2005)
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court affirmed a Superior Court judgment upholding a decision of the Bureau of Special Education Appeals (BSEA) that Salem and Georgetown were jointly responsible for a student's special education program. The case involved a student in the custody of the Department of Social Services (DSS) who was placed in a residential school by DSS. The student's parents are divorced; the father, who lives in Georgetown, had sole physical custody and the mother lives in Salem. The BSEA based its ruling on a provision in the Board of Education's special education regulations that says when a student in DSS custody is placed in a residential school, the districts where both parents reside are responsible without regard to custody status. Salem challenged the BSEA's administrative decision in Superior Court.
The court upheld the authority of the Board of Education to promulgate regulations resolving the issue of a student's residence in situations when the student's legal residence is in doubt. It concluded that the regulations "constitute a proper exercise" of the Board's authority and are not contrary to the relevant statutory provisions "because the regulations appropriately address a situation to which the statutory provisions do not speak." It further stated that the regulations "provide a reasonable means of assigning financial responsibility." Although the court noted that other approaches to this issue are possible, it stated that the approach taken by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education should be upheld if it bears "a rational relation to the statutory purpose," and concluded that it did.
The Board of Education amended the special education regulations effective July 1, 2005, and the specific regulation at issue in this case has been deleted. The Supreme Judicial Court's decision remains significant, however, because it affirms the authority of the Board and Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to adopt and apply regulations to allocate fiscal and programmatic responsibility for a special education student in situations where residency is not clear.
4. Comfort, et al. v. Lynn School Committee, et al., 418 F. 3d 1 (1st Cir. 2005)
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit issued an en banc decision in June 2005 upholding the Lynn School Committee's voluntary racial balance plan. Under Lynn's plan, each student is entitled to attend his or her neighborhood school. Students who do not wish to attend their neighborhood school may apply to transfer to another school in Lynn. Approval of the transfer depends, in large part, on the requesting student's race and the racial makeup of the schools from which and to which the student would transfer.
A group of parents filed suit challenging Lynn's plan - specifically, its use of race as a factor in granting or denying student transfers - as unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and in violation of other legal rights. The Attorney General intervened on behalf of the Commonwealth and also represented the members of the Board of Education, who were named as defendants in a related lawsuit (Bollen) that was consolidated with the Comfort case.
After an extensive trial in the U.S. District Court, Judge Nancy Gertner issued a decision in 2003 rejecting the plaintiffs' challenges and upholding Lynn's plan. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit reversed that decision in 2004, finding that the plan was not narrowly tailored to the school district's compelling interest in achieving the benefits of educational diversity. The panel decision was withdrawn when the Court of Appeals granted Lynn's motion for a rehearing en banc - a "full bench" review by the entire appellate court.
The en banc decision in June 2005 affirmed the District Court's ruling and upheld the constitutionality of Lynn's plan. Relying on recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions regarding affirmative action in public higher education, the Court of Appeals concluded that the Lynn School Committee "has a compelling interest in achieving the benefits of educational diversity" and that "the Lynn Plan is narrowly tailored to meet this compelling interest." The court found that the use of race under the Lynn plan was minimal; it avoided the use of quotas and racial balancing for its own sake; it had a finite duration; and the school committee adopted it after considering race-neutral alternatives. The court rejected the plaintiffs' other legal claims, finding them coextensive with their claims under the Equal Protection Clause. The plaintiffs sought review of the decision in the U.S. Supreme Court. In December 2005, the Supreme Court declined, without comment, to review the case.
5. School Committee of Hudson, School Committee of Marlborough, and School Committee of Maynard v. Board and Commissioner of Education, Middlesex Super. Ct. No. 04-1155 (Aug. 11, 2005)
In February 2004, on recommendation of the Commissioner, the Board of Education voted to grant a charter to the Advanced Math and Science Academy Charter School (AMSA) in Marlborough. In March 2004, the school committees of Hudson, Marlborough, and Maynard filed suit in Superior Court against the Board and Commissioner and sought reversal of the Board's decision to grant a charter to AMSA. Among other claims, the school committees alleged that the Board and the Commissioner failed to comply with statutory mandates.
In August 2005, the Superior Court dismissed all of the school committees' claims. The court determined that relief was not available under the Commonwealth's administrative procedure act, G.L. c. 30A, or the Commonwealth's certiorari statute, G.L. c. 249, § 4, because the Board's granting of a charter does not occur as the result of an adjudicatory proceeding that is quasi-judicial or judicial in nature. The court also determined that the plaintiffs were not entitled to judgment under the declaratory judgment statute, G.L. c. 231A, because they did not challenge the alleged defects in the award of AMSA's charter as "consistently repeated." The decision affirmed that the AMSA Charter School holds a valid charter granted by the Board. The charter school opened in September 2005.
The school committees subsequently sought, and were denied, reconsideration of the Superior Court's decision. They then appealed the Superior Court's decision and requested direct appellate review in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The appeal is pending in the SJC, which is expected to hear oral argument in November 2006.
6. Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. Roxbury Charter High Public School, Suffolk Super. Ct. No. 2005-4052-F (Dec. 20, 2005)
In September 2005, after seven days of hearing, the Board of Education voted to adopt the recommended decision of its hearing officer to revoke the charter granted to the Roxbury Charter High Public School (RCHPS). The Board's decision was based on the school's lack of financial viability, its serious and ongoing organizational problems, and its failure to adhere to the terms of its charter. While RCHPS did not seek judicial review of the Board's revocation decision, it nonetheless remained open. As a result, on September 22, 2005, the Commonwealth filed an action seeking the school's immediate closure and, after a number of legal proceedings and an appeal, the Massachusetts Appeals Court stayed the Board's action until December 23, 2005.
On December 20, 2005, following briefing and argument by the parties, the Superior Court affirmed the Board's revocation decision effective December 23, 2005. In its decision, the court "conclude[s] that the Board's decision is supported by the substantial evidence in the Hearing Officer's findings and that the Board was within its statutory discretion in revoking the School's charter." In support of its conclusion, the court states that "there is no dispute that the School experienced serious financial difficulties that threatened its viability;" that "the evidence also establishes that the School struggled with governance and management issues;" and that "the School did not meet its obligations under the Charter."
In March 2006, RCHPS appealed the Superior Court's decision. The appeal is pending in the Massachusetts Appeals Court. The parties will brief the issues and argue the appeal over the next year.
Prepared by Rhoda E. Schneider, General Counsel
June 14, 2006