Several parents of Chelsea Public School students and the Chelsea Collaborative have taken a lead role in a statewide school funding lawsuit filed against the state Department of Education on Thursday for ignoring the constitutional mandate requiring the Commonwealth to fund a quality education for all students.
The parents allege constitutional violations of students’ education and civil rights as a result of the state’s inadequate school funding system.
“Students in underfunded school districts are being deprived of the opportunity to receive the education to which they are entitled,” alleges the lawsuit filed with the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. “Public schools are increasingly unable to provide sufficient resources to meet ever-increasing educational challenges.”
Collaborative Executive Director Gladys Vega said her organization and several parents tried to work within the system, but it came time to take action because the system wasn’t responding.
“For us, we’ve been working in the system; we’ve tried everything,” she said. “The failure of the system means our children are being neglected and their future is compromised because our legislators do not have the moral courage to do what benefits these children. We feel we have done everything right, right, right, but the state leaders don’t do their part. In Chelsea, we have to take municipal dollars that may be going to hire two or three police officers and using that for the schools instead. We need the state to step up and provide these funds. At some point, you have to take action.”
Parent Mayra Balderas is one of the Chelsea residents that joined the lawsuit, and she spoke at a rally last Thursday as well.
“Chelsea is one of the poorest communities in Massachusetts and it sits within a stone’s throw of Massachusetts’ capital city,” said 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.”
Balderas, who is blind, said it took an incident where the Department of Social Services (DSS) got mistakenly involved with her son to get the Chelsea Schools to do the evaluation she had wanted for years. She said those things are not done because there is not money to implement the costly plans that are often a remedy to help students with learning or behavioral challenges.
“I wanted help and nobody would help,” she said. “It took DSS involvement for the schools to jump and do the evaluation…Everything is not fine. We need help. For others, it could be worse than it was for me, especially if they don’t have the language skills. They just stay silent because they don’t know. Imagine how many people are going through so much pain with their children and no one is listening because they don’t have the language to speak up.”
Karen Louis-Pierre is a graduate of Chelsea High, and now has a young child at the Silber Early Learning Center. Studying to be a teacher, she said she sees the problems that are creeping up due to lack of funding. It’s something she also remembers as a student at Chelsea High.
“The situations we have here sends a message these kids don’t matter,” she said. “That message really gets to the kids – that they are not as important or not as valuable as the children from wealthier districts. It’s an unfortunate situation. This is something I have worked all my life to address. I want to come back to be a social worker at Chelsea Public Schools for this reason. The teachers and administrators need more support…It’s infuriating as a parent. The teachers are overwhelmed and the classrooms are too big. I worry about the teachers. I see they are exhausted and burning out. That all goes back to the state funding formulas.”
The plaintiffs – children and their parents from Chelsea, Chicopee, Fall River, Haverhill, Lowell, Orange, and Springfield – are joined in the suit by the New England Area Conference of the NAACP and the Collaborative, whose members include parents and students in those seven underfunded school districts.
The lawsuit was developed by the HYPERLINK “https://www.fairschoolfinance.com/” \t “_blank” Council for Fair School Finance (CFSC), 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 on June 15, 1993, 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.
“Education rights are civil rights and this complaint documents in stark detail the neglect that persists in public schools for children of color and poor students throughout this state,” said Juan Cofield, President of the New England Area Conference of the NAACP, which is also a plaintiff in the case. “Disparities between the wealthiest and the poorest districts are widening, and students in underfunded school districts are being denied the education they are constitutionally guaranteed.”
In Chelsea, inadequate state funding means many classrooms have over 30 students, even at the elementary level, CFSF said. In Chicopee, afterschool programs and 37 staff positions were eliminated this year, while many school buildings are over 50 years old and books that are over 30 years old are still used in class. In Fall River, a single English language learner specialist often is responsible for the language needs of 75 students, while students themselves often serve as translators for parent-teacher meetings, as the district cannot recruit, retain, or afford enough bilingual professionals to meet a growing ELL population.
The nearly 100-page complaint documents, in painstaking detail, numerous disturbing facts about the failures of our public education funding system. It cites 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.