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Education Laws and Regulations

The State Constitutional Mandate for Education:
The McDuffy and Hancock Decisions

Rhoda E. Schneider, General Counsel
Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education1

Historical Background

In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the U.S. Constitution does not provide a right to equal educational opportunity based on students' relative wealth or poverty. San Antonio Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1 (1973). Since that decision, all cases challenging the equity or adequacy of public school finance have proceeded under state constitutions. Massachusetts and about thirty other states either have litigated or are currently in litigation over school finance and educational equity and adequacy.

McDuffy v. Secretary of the Executive Office of Education

In June 1993, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued its decision in McDuffy v. Secretary of the Executive Office of Education, 415 Mass. 545, 615 N.E.2d 516 (1993). The decision established the state constitutional standards against which education reform efforts in Massachusetts would be judged.

The complaint, which was initiated in 1978 and amended in 1990, was brought on behalf of students in certain property-poor communities who alleged that the school finance system violated the education clause of the Massachusetts Constitution. In words unchanged since 1780, the education clause states in part that "[i]t shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish… the public schools and grammar schools in the towns." Mass. Const., pt. II, ch. V, § II. The plaintiffs claimed that the Commonwealth had failed its constitutional duty to provide them with the opportunity to receive an adequate education of sufficiently high quality.

In its decision, the Supreme Judicial Court held that the education clause is not merely aspirational or hortatory, but also imposes on the Commonwealth an enforceable duty to provide an education for all its children, rich and poor, in every city and town through the public schools. On the issue of state and local responsibility, the court stated that "[w]hile it is clearly within the power of the Commonwealth to delegate some of the implementation of the duty to local governments, such power does not include a right to abdicate the obligation imposed on magistrates [the executive branch] and Legislatures placed on them by the Constitution." McDuffy v. Sec'y of the Executive Office of Educ., 415 Mass. at 606, 615 N.E.2d at 548. The court held that the Commonwealth had failed to meet its constitutional obligation, citing, among other things, the Report of the Committee on Distressed School Systems and School Reform published by the Massachusetts Board of Education in 1991.

The plaintiffs did not request, and the court did not order, equalized spending on public education. Instead, the court left it to the legislative and executive branches of state government to devise a remedy that would meet the constitutional duty. McDuffy v. Sec'y of the Executive Office of Educ., 415 Mass. at 621, 615 N.E.2d at 555-56.

At the conclusion of its decision, the court set out broad guidelines regarding the nature of the duty to educate. The court stated that

[a]n educated child must possess 'at least the seven following capabilities: (i) sufficient oral and written communication skills to enable students to function in a complex and rapidly changing civilization; (ii) sufficient knowledge of economic, social, and political systems to enable students to make informed choices; (iii) sufficient understanding of governmental processes to enable the student to understand the issues that affect his or her community, state, and nation; (iv) sufficient self-knowledge and knowledge of his or her mental and physical wellness; (v) sufficient grounding in the arts to enable each student to appreciate his or her cultural and historical heritage; (vi) sufficient training or preparation for advanced training in either academic or vocational fields so as to enable each child to choose and pursue life work intelligently; and (vii) sufficient level of academic or vocational skills to enable public school students to compete favorably with their counterparts in surrounding states, in academics or in the job market.'

McDuffy v. Sec'y of the Executive Office of Educ., 415 Mass. at 618-19, 615 N.E.2d at 554 (quoting Rose v. Council for Better Educ., Inc., 790 S.W.2d 186, 212 (Ky. 1989)).

The court concluded by stating its presumption that the Commonwealth would define the details and appropriate means to provide the constitutionally required education and authorizing a single justice to retain jurisdiction to determine, in his or her discretion, whether appropriate legislative action has been taken within a reasonable time. McDuffy v. Sec'y of the Executive Office of Educ., 415 Mass. at 621, 615 N.E.2d at 555-56.

The Education Reform Act, Chapter 71 of the Acts of 1993, was signed into law in June 1993, just a few days after the Supreme Judicial Court decided the McDuffy case.2 This far-reaching legislation had been in the works since 1991, when the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education published its report, Every Child A Winner! Leaders from business, education, and state and local government worked together over several years to draft and promote a comprehensive standards-based education reform bill that drew on experience in Massachusetts as well as legislative initiatives in other states.

The Hancock Case: Successor to McDuffy

Hancock v. Commissioner of Education, 443 Mass. 428, 822 N.E. 2d 1134 (2005) was initiated in 1999 as the successor to the McDuffy case.3 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 over a period of six months starting in 2003. The defendants (commissioner and board of education) asserted that while the McDuffy decision identified the Commonwealth's constitutional duty to educate its children, the Supreme Judicial Court had 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 met its duty by enacting and implementing the comprehensive education reform law, whose major components are 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.

The Superior Court (Judge Botsford) issued its report in April 2004. It acknowledged the huge increase in funding and in state involvement in preK-12 education since 1993 and 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. The report 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, Judge Botsford recommended that the Supreme Judicial Court order 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 Supreme Judicial Court decided the case in February 2005, after reviewing Judge Botsford's report and recommendations and hearing oral argument from the parties. The high court declined to adopt Judge Botsford's recommendations, and instead decided to "dispose 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.

Hancock v. Comr. of Educ., 443 Mass. at 433, 822 N.E.2d at 1139.

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. …

In McDuffy, this court faced an overwhelming, stipulated body of evidence that the structure of public education in Massachusetts was condemning generations of public school students in our poorer communities to an inferior education. It was an abysmal failure. The public education system reviewed today has been radically overhauled with one 'paramount goal' in mind - to implement a plan to educate every public school student in Massachusetts. …

The evidence here is that the Commonwealth's comprehensive statewide plan for education reform is beginning to work in significant ways. …

The Governor, the Legislature, and the department [of education] are well aware that the process of education reform can and must be improved. … The amply supported findings of the judge reflect much that remains to be corrected before all children in our Commonwealth are educated. The Legislature may well choose to rely on those findings as it continues to consider efforts to improve public education. Her findings are also a testament to the many educators, teachers, parents, business and community leaders who insist that, until that goal is reached, they will continue to demand improvement and will seek the help of our elected officials to ensure that meaningful reform is ongoing.

Hancock v. Comr. of Educ., 443 Mass. at 435, 452, 459, 461-462; 822 N.E.2d at 1140, 1151, 1156, 1157-1158.

Commissioner of Education David P. Driscoll stated after the Hancock decision that the legislative and executive branches must continue to meet their responsibilities for public education. "The court has affirmed that we are meeting our constitutional duty, but our job is far from over. Given the ever-increasing demands of the global economy, it's never been more important for students to reach high levels of achievement."

1 This document is derived from "The State and Federal Roles in Massachusetts Public Schools" by Rhoda E. Schneider, which is Chapter 3 in the book, School Law in Massachusetts, published by Massachusetts Continuing Legal Education, 2007 Supplement.

2 Major provisions of the Education Reform Act are codified in Chapters 69-71 of the Mass. General Laws.

3 The full text of the Supreme Judicial Court's decision in the Hancock case.

Last Updated: September 27, 2007

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