Education Laws and Regulations
Significant Litigation in FY 2006
Following are summaries of some significant litigation involving the Board, Department and Commissioner of Education in FY 2006 (July 1, 2005 - June 30, 2006).
1. 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.'"
2. Student 1, et al. v. Mass. Board of Education, et al., Suffolk Super. Ct. No. 03-0071 (May 2006 settlement)
In May 2006, the sole remaining legal challenge against the state's high school graduation requirement was settled. The settlement upholds the Commonwealth's right to hold all students to a uniform high standard. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Attorney General's Office worked with the plaintiffs in this case since 2004 to arrive at the settlement, leading to a stipulation of dismissal of the case.
The settlement maintains the competency determination standard for high school graduation. That standard requires all students, beginning with the class of 2003, to meet local graduation requirements and meet or exceed the score established by the Board of Education on both the English Language Arts and Mathematics grade 10 MCAS exams in order to earn a Massachusetts high school diploma. The settlement includes several provisions aimed at helping students meet the standard and improving the quality of education statewide. Among them:
- Taking additional steps to ensure that students with disabilities have access to the curriculum taught to all students;
- Developing guidance for school districts on improving classroom instruction for limited English proficient students;
- Eliminating the requirement that students earn a minimum score of 216 on the grade 10 MCAS exam to qualify for a performance appeal, while maintaining the same rigorous and substantive standards for evaluating that appeal;
- Requiring school districts to notify students who leave without having earned the competency determination that there are post-high school opportunities to learn the necessary material and retake the MCAS exams; and
- Taking steps to reduce the number of students who drop out of school, including setting a state standard for a "high school graduation rate" and sponsoring statewide conferences on strategies for dropout prevention.
3. Gregory P. Lee v. Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Suffolk Super. Ct. No. 05-0937 (February 15, 2006)
The Superior Court (Judge Elizabeth Fahey) upheld the legality of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's process for reviewing and denying applications for educator licensure based on an applicant's educational qualifications and moral character. The court affirmed the Department's position that an applicant for an educator license has no statutory or constitutional right to an adjudicatory hearing or judicial review when the agency declines to grant an initial license based on the applicant not having met the requirements for licensure. In contrast, revocation of an existing license requires the agency to give the license holder the opportunity for an adjudicatory hearing before taking final action, and the license holder may appeal an adverse decision to Superior Court.
The Superior Court held that the state Administrative Procedure Act and the educator licensure statute do not require an agency hearing in the context of license applications, and there is no constitutional right to such a hearing because the applicant does not yet have a protected property interest in a license. The court also held that the provision in the educator licensure statute, M.G.L. c.71, § 38G, requiring applicants to have "sound moral character" is not unconstitutionally vague.
4. McCarthy v. Driscoll, Suffolk Super. Ct. No. 05-2125 (March 20, 2006)
The Superior Court (Judge Janet Sanders) upheld the authority of the Board and Commissioner of Education to establish licensure standards for superintendents of vocational-technical school districts, specifically including superintendents of independent agricultural and technical schools. The court directed the entry of a judgment declaring that the Commissioner acted within his authority when he invalidated the appointment of the plaintiff as the superintendent of Essex Agricultural and Technical High School because the plaintiff did not meet the licensure standards.
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 (Judge Stephen Neel) dismissed all of the school committees' claims. The court determined that relief was not available under the Commonwealth's administrative procedure act, M.G.L. c. 30A, or the Commonwealth's certiorari statute, M.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, M.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 Supreme Judicial Court, which is expected to hear oral argument early in 2007.
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, a single justice of the Massachusetts Appeals Court (Laurence, J.) stayed the Board's action until December 23, 2005.
On December 20, 2005, following briefing and argument by the parties, the Superior Court (Judge Geraldine Hines) 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, which is expected to hear oral argument sometime in 2007.
7. Burton v. Town of Littleton, 426 F. 3d 9 (1st Cir. 2005)
Although the Commissioner of Education was not a party to this case, the decision in the Burton case provides helpful guidance to state and local and education officials. In Burton, the school district terminated a newly hired teacher after she was accused of hitting a fifth grader, an accusation that appears to have been false. The opinion of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit (by Justice Sandra Lynch) analyzed whether Littleton, the public sector employer, had disseminated a false and defamatory impression about the teacher's discharge when the superintendent sent a copy of the termination letter to the Commissioner of Education. The opinion distinguished the superintendent's duty to shield public employee personnel records from public disclosure (citing the holding of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in the Wakefield case, decided in 2000), from a superintendent's duty in "communicating appropriate concerns about teachers to the Commissioner in his capacity as a licensing authority." The Court affirmed the Commissioner's broad statutory authority in educator licensing matters, and endorsed the superintendent's authority to report misconduct to the Commissioner that "could potentially affect licensure," even before the superintendent's obligation to report educator misconduct was specified in a Board of Education regulation.