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Springfield Student Assignment Plan - Jurisdiction of Board and Commissioner of Education

To:David P. Driscoll, Commissioner of Education
From:Rhoda E. Schneider, General Counsel
Date:June 13, 2005


At the Board of Education meeting on April 26, 2005, the Board had an initial discussion about the Elementary and Middle Boundary Schools Zoning Plan that was adopted by the Springfield School Committee on March 23, 2005. At the Board's May 24th meeting, Superintendent Joseph Burke presented the plan, discussed the positive impact he expects it to have on improving education and racial balance in the city's schools, and responded to questions from the Board. Several Board members expressed concern that the plan will reduce parental choice and added that the quality of the schools is of critical importance.

After considerable discussion about the plan, Chairman Peyser raised a significant procedural point, questioning whether the Board has authority to approve the plan. He stated: "While we continue to have jurisdiction in cases where district demographics still fit the standards embedded in the Racial Imbalance Act, and in cases that clearly violate the general policy of the Commonwealth supporting racially diverse schools, I do not believe that this board is empowered to render an enforceable judgment on Springfield's student assignment proposal." You agreed with Chairman Peyser that the Board does not necessarily have jurisdiction in this matter, and added that in any event the Commissioner and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will play an active role in Springfield as the plan is implemented, focusing on the results in terms of educational quality and racial balance.

As a result of the discussion, the Board did not vote on your recommendation to approve the Springfield plan. The Board and you have asked for my opinion on whether it is necessary for the Board to vote on the plan. Based on my review of the applicable case law and statutes, I conclude that a Board vote is not necessary.

Brief History of State Involvement in Springfield's Racial Balance Plan

The Massachusetts Racial Imbalance Law was originally enacted in 1965. Under its authority, the Board of Education approved racial imbalance plans in the late 1960's for several school districts, and also required Boston, New Bedford and Springfield to develop and implement plans. In 1973 and 1974, the Board directed Springfield to implement a short-term plan to achieve racial imbalance in the public schools, and subsequently to prepare a long-range racial balance plan, which in 1975 was the subject of administrative hearings before a hearing officer designated by the Board.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued several decisions concerning the Board's actions on racial balance in Springfield: School Committee of Springfield v. Board of Education, 287 N.E. 2d 438 (1972) (Springfield I), School Committee of Springfield v. Board of Education, 311 N.E. 2d 69 (1974) (Springfield II), School Committee of Springfield v. Board of Education, 319 N.E. 2d 427, cert. denied, 95 S. Ct. 1977 (1974) (Springfield III) and Board of Education v. School Committee of Springfield, 345 N.E. 2d 345 (1976) (Springfield IV). The 1974 court decisions in the Springfield II and IIIcases approved Springfield's Six District Plan and ordered it to be put into effect, with the court retaining jurisdiction over the matter as might be necessary. However, in the last of the decisions, Springfield IV, the court concluded its opinion with this statement:

In closing, we express the hope that the School Committee and the State Board will move by agreement rather than protracted lawsuits toward the evolution of the Six District Plan. It must be recognized on all sides that the courts are not the proper place for the resolution of step by step modifications of the plan.

345 N.E. 2d at 360. Consistent with the hope expressed by the Supreme Judicial Court, Springfield's court ordered student assignment plan has evolved over the last 30 years without further judicial involvement. The Springfield School Committee modified its plan in 1987, with the Board's approval. In 1990, the School Committee adopted a controlled choice student assignment plan, which the Board approved as an amendment to all previously approved Springfield desegregation plans. Since 1990, Springfield has adopted and the Commissioner of Education has approved several minor modifications to the plan, most recently in 2004.

The Racial Imbalance Law

In 1974, the Racial Imbalance Law was amended to eliminate the Board's authority to order school redistricting. The amendments to the law made two major changes:

  • In place of mandatory student reassignments, the 1974 law substituted increased funding (additional School Building Assistance funding and "Chapter 636" grants for magnet schools and other programs) as an incentive for school districts to reduce racial imbalance and isolation of minority students. A few years ago, however, the School Building Assistance law was revised and also the state appropriation for "Chapter 636" grants was eliminated.

  • The amended Racial Imbalance Law set numerical thresholds that trigger a mandatory right to transfer. (See G.L. c. 71, §37D.) A school in which more than 50% of the students are "non-white" is considered "racially imbalanced." A school in which not more than 30% of the students are "non-white" is considered "racially isolated." A school district must permit a "non-white" student attending a racially imbalanced school to transfer into a racially isolated school within the district, and must permit a white student attending a racially isolated school to transfer into a racially imbalanced school.

These provisions of the Racial Imbalance Law are not at issue in Springfield. First, Springfield's school construction funding is not affected, since the current School Building Assistance formula considers only whether a district has a desegregation plan approved by the Board on or before June 30, 2000, which Springfield did. G.L. c. 70B, §10(c). Second, every school in Springfield is more than 50% "non-white," so the transfer provisions of G.L. c. 71, §37D do not apply. (The demographics of student enrollment in Springfield have changed dramatically in the last 30 years. In 1974, the student population was 11.4% Hispanic, 26.3% Black and 62.3% White. In 2004-2005, the student population is 49.9% Hispanic, 27.9% Black and 19.5% White.)

The general statement of purpose of the Racial Imbalance Law, G.L. c. 71, §37C, remains relevant in Springfield and in every school district in the Commonwealth. It reads as follows:

It is hereby declared to be the policy of the commonwealth to encourage all school committees to adopt as educational objectives the promotion of racial balance and the correction of existing racial imbalance in the public schools. The prevention or elimination of racial imbalance shall be an objective in all decisions involving the drawing or altering of school attendance lines, establishing of grade levels, and the selection of new school sites.

Role of the Board of Education

The Springfield School Committee has adopted the Elementary and Middle Boundary Schools Zoning Plan as the successor to the controlled choice plan that was approved by the Board in 1990 and subsequently was amended several times with the Commissioner's approval. The question now is whether approval from the Board of Education is necessary in order for Springfield to implement the plan. In my opinion, it is not necessary for the Board to approve the plan, for the following reasons.

  1. The controlled choice plan that Springfield decided to adopt and the Board approved in 1990 was not mandated either by the court or by the Board. The Springfield School Committee has the discretion to amend the plan to address changed circumstances, as long as the new plan is consistent with the purposes of the Racial Imbalance Law and the original court orders. Superintendent Burke has stated that Springfield's new plan will reduce racial imbalance and minority isolation in the city's schools as well as reducing transportation costs and providing education benefits. As you noted in your May 17th memorandum to the Board, it is difficult to predict future student enrollment patterns, given ever-changing demographics as well as the provision in the plan that allows students the option to remain in their "legacy schools" for two years, with transportation provided. Nevertheless, the plan is designed to promote racial balance. As such, it is consistent with the statement of purpose of the Racial Imbalance Law as well as the intent of the Supreme Judicial Court's orders.

  2. Since 1990, the Commissioner rather than the Board has approved modifications to Springfield's plan. With respect to the new Boundary Schools zoning plan, which will replace controlled choice, you have stated that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will work with Superintendent Burke, the School Committee and the school community to monitor implementation of the plan. Specifically, you expect the school district to provide periodic data reports and analysis to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the public; evaluate and report on the results of student assignments; and take necessary steps to address weaknesses that may be identified though the evaluation. Moreover, you have pledged that the Department will continue to work with Springfield to address problems in school performance. In these circumstances, it is appropriate for the Board to continue to leave action on the plan to the judgment of the Commissioner, as secretary to the Board and its chief executive officer. I recommend that the Superintendent and the Commissioner provide periodic reports to the Board as the plan is implemented.

In summary, given the current circumstances, the Board does not have to approve the amendments to Springfield's plan in order for the school district to implement the new plan. The Commissioner's monitoring, with whatever conditions he deems appropriate, is sufficient to meet the applicable legal standards.

Last Updated: April 1, 2005
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