Hancock v. Commissioner of Education

Decision Date04 October 2004
Citation822 NE 2d 1134,443 Mass. 428
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court

Present: Marshall, C.J., Greaney, Ireland, Spina, Cowin, Sosman, & Cordy, JJ. Deirdre Roney, Assistant Attorney General (Juliana deHaan Rice & Jane L. Willoughby, Assistant Attorneys General, with her) for the defendants

Michael D. Weisman (Rebecca P. McIntyre, Emiliano Mazlen, Peter E. Montgomery, & Alan Jay Rom with him) for the plaintiffs.

The following submitted briefs for amici curiae:

Harvey J. Wolkoff for State Senator Jarrett T. Barrios & others.

Mark R. Freitas for Massachusetts Alliance for Arts Education & others.

Richard W. Benka for Massachusetts Health Council, Inc., & others.

Joel Z. Eigerman for Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action & others.

Daniel J. Gleason for Jonathan Kozol.

Roger L. Rice & Jane E. Lopez for Centro Latino de Chelsea & others.

M. Julie Patiño, Nadine Cohen, & Laura Maslow-Armand for Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law of the Boston Bar Association & others.

Andrea C. Kramer, A. Lauren Carpenter, & Robert E. Sullivan for Massachusetts 2020 Foundation & others. Ann Clarke, Stephen J. Finnegan, Jeffrey N. Jacobsen, & Michael J. Long for Massachusetts Teachers Association/NEA & others.

Thomas J. Dougherty & Kurt Wm. Hemr for Massachusetts Urban School Superintendents.

Henry C. Dinger & Benjamin M. Wattenmaker for Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education & others.

M. Robert Dushman, Albert W. Wallis, & Samantha L. Gerlovin for MassPartners for Public Schools & another.

Daniel J. Losen for The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University.

Michael D. Vhay for Federation for Children with Special Needs, Inc.

Neil V. McKittrick & Patrick M. Curran, Jr., for Strategies for Children, Inc., & another.


This matter is before the court on reservation and report by a single justice. A full description of the procedural background of the matter is set forth in the concurring opinion of the Chief Justice.

A majority of the Justices decline to adopt the conclusion of the specially assigned judge of the Superior Court that the Commonwealth presently is not meeting its obligations under Part II, c. 5, § 2, of the Massachusetts Constitution, and reject her recommendation for further judicial action at this time. The plaintiffs' motion for further relief is therefore denied, and the single justice's ongoing jurisdiction shall be terminated. By this action, the court disposes of the case in its entirety.

So ordered.

MARSHALL, C.J. (concurring, with whom Spina and Cordy, JJ., join).

For its effective functioning, democracy requires an educated citizenry. In Massachusetts the democratic imperative to educate finds strong voice in the "education clause" of the Massachusetts Constitution, Part II, c. 5, § 2 (education clause),3 which "impose[s] an enforceable duty on the magistrates and Legislatures of this Commonwealth to provide education in the public schools for the children there enrolled, whether they be rich or poor and without regard to the fiscal capacity of the community or district in which such children live." McDuffy v. Secretary of the Executive Office of Educ., 415 Mass. 545, 621 (1993) (McDuffy). This reflects the conviction of the people of Massachusetts that, because education is "fundamentally related to the very existence of government," id. at 565, the Commonwealth has a constitutional duty to prepare all of its children "to participate as free citizens of a free State to meet the needs and interests of a republican government, namely the Commonwealth of Massachusetts." Id. at 606. Today, I reaffirm that constitutional imperative. The question is whether the Commonwealth presently is meeting its duty to educate.

Twelve years ago, in McDuffy, this court declared that the Commonwealth failed to fulfil that obligation, id. at 617, where the Commonwealth had delegated the responsibility for public school education to local communities, and its system of funding primary and secondary public education relied all but exclusively on local property taxes. That system left property-poor communities with insufficient resources to provide students with educational opportunities comparable to those available in property-rich communities. It amounted to an abdication of the Commonwealth's duty to educate. See id. at 614-617. This court left correction of the constitutional violation to the elected branches of government and left to the discretion of a single justice whether to retain jurisdiction of the case. Id. at 550-551, 621. Three days after McDuffy issued, the omnibus Education Reform Act of 1993 (act), long under consideration in the Legislature, became law. See St. 1993, c. 71, enacted by emergency preamble on June 18, 1993. See generally G. L. cc. 69-71. There, the Legislature declared its "paramount goal" to provide a public education system that reflected "a consistent commitment of resources sufficient to provide a high quality public education to every child," and that would extend to all children "the opportunity to reach their full potential and to lead lives as participants in the political and social life of the [C]ommonwealth and as contributors to its economy." G. L. c. 69, § 1. The act, as I shall describe below, radically restructured the funding of public education across the Commonwealth based on uniform criteria of need, and dramatically increased the Commonwealth's mandatory financial assistance to public schools. The act also established, for the first time in Massachusetts, uniform, objective performance and accountability measures for every public school student, teacher, administrator, school, and district in Massachusetts.

The plaintiffs here, all students in Commonwealth public schools, claim that evidence from the public school districts of Brockton, Lowell, Springfield, and Winchendon (which the parties have termed the "focus districts") demonstrates that public education in those districts has not improved significantly since 1993, and that the Commonwealth is still in violation of its constitutional obligation to educate children in its poorer communities, most notably children with special educational needs. A Superior Court judge specifically assigned to hear evidence and report to the single justice agreed. She found that, while substantial improvements in public education had occurred since 1993, significant failings persisted in the focus districts, and that the Department of Education (department) lacked sufficient resources and capacity to address these failings. She recommended that the department be ordered to determine the "actual cost" of funding a "constitutionally adequate level of education" for all students in the focus districts, and that the Commonwealth be ordered to implement the funding and administrative changes necessary to achieve that result. The single justice reserved and reported the case to the full court. I accord great deference to the Superior Court judge's thoughtful and detailed findings of fact. I accept those findings, and share the judge's concern that sharp disparities in the educational opportunities, and the performance, of some Massachusetts public school students persist. The public education system we review today, however, is not the public education system reviewed in McDuffy. Its shortcomings, while significant in the focus districts, do not constitute the egregious, Statewide abandonment of the constitutional duty identified in that case.4

In the twelve years since McDuffy was decided, the elected branches have acted to transform a dismal and fractured public school system into a unified system that has yielded, as the judge found, "impressive results in terms of improvement in overall student performance." She found that "spending gaps between districts based on property wealth have been reduced or even reversed. The correlation between a district's median family income and spending has also been reduced." Public dollars for public education are now being allocated to where they are the most effective: defining core educational goals for all students, evaluating student performance toward those goals, and holding schools and school districts accountable for achieving those goals. See G. L. c. 69, §§ 1, 1D. A system mired in failure has given way to one that, although far from perfect, shows a steady trajectory of progress.

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. It is significant, in my view, that the Commonwealth has allocated billions of dollars for education reform since the act's passage, and that this new and substantial financial commitment has continued even amidst one of the worst budget crises in decades. By creating and implementing standardized Statewide criteria of funding and oversight; by establishing objective competency goals and the means to measure progress toward those goals5; by developing, and acting on, a plan to eliminate impediments to education based on property valuation, disability, lack of English proficiency, and racial or ethnic status; and by directing significant new resources to schools with the most dire needs, I cannot conclude that the Commonwealth currently is not meeting its constitutional charge to "cherish the interests of . . . public schools." Part II, c. 5, § 2.

I interject some words of caution. I do not retreat from the court's holding in McDuffy.6 The education clause "impose[s] an enforceable duty on the magistrates and Legislatures of this Commonwealth to provide education in the public schools for the children there enrolled, whether they be rich or poor and without regard to the fiscal capacity of the community or district in which...

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