The Supreme Judicial Court ruled yesterday that there is no constitutional guarantee of a seat in a charter school and that the state can continue to limit the total number of charter-school seats.
The ruling came on a lawsuit filed by five Boston students who said the system was failing them because they had been assigned to under-performing BPS schools but were then unable to win a seat in a charter school in the annual charter-school lotteries.
The students said this deprived them of their constitutional right to "an adequate education."
But in its ruling, the state's highest court said that while it's unfortunate their schools sucked, that's not a reason to disturb the state's long-standing limits on charter-school seats - which voters endorsed in 2016. The court reasoned that the state has numerous ways of trying to improve education but that the students focused on just one - charter schools. The proper venue for trying to change the cap is the legislature and the court of public opinion, the justices wrote.
Although the plaintiffs allege that their education is inadequate because two of their schools have been designated by the Commonwealth as level four schools and three have been designated as level three schools, they do not claim that the Commonwealth's framework for ensuring that all schools, including the plaintiffs', meet constitutional educational adequacy fails to satisfy the requirements of the education clause. They instead focus solely on the charter school cap. As there is no constitutional entitlement to attend charter schools, and the plaintiffs' complaint does not suggest that charter schools are the Commonwealth's only plan for ensuring that the education provided in the plaintiffs' schools will be adequate, the Superior Court judge did not err in dismissing the plaintiffs' education clause claim.
Furthermore, even if the plaintiffs had successfully stated a claim under the education clause, the specific relief that they seek would not be available. The education clause provides a right for all the Commonwealth's children to receive an adequate education, not a right to attend charter schools. "[T]he education clause leaves the details of education policymaking to the Governor and the Legislature." Hancock, 443 Mass. at 454 (Marshall, C.J., concurring). Although a violation of the education clause may result in judicial action to remedy the wrong, the clause does not permit courts to order "fundamentally political" remedies or "policy choices that are properly the Legislature's domain." Id. at 460.
Thus, here, although the remedy the plaintiffs seek by way of this action, i.e., expanding access to charter schools, could potentially help address the plaintiffs' educational needs, other policy choices might do so as well, such as taking steps to improve lower-performing traditional public schools. There may be any number of equally effective options that also could address the plaintiffs' concerns; however, each would involve policy considerations that must be left to the Legislature. See id. at 460. Whether to divert an increased amount of school district funds from traditional public schools to charter schools to comply with the education clause mandate is a choice for the Legislature, not for the courts. See id. See also id. at 484 (Greaney, J., dissenting) (acknowledging "the disagreement between competent experts on how best to remediate a nonperforming or poorly-performing school district").
The court also said the cap issue is properly decided in the legislature, because the current system requires money for charter schools to be taken away from more traditional public schools:
The charter school cap reflects the education interests of students in the Commonwealth who do not attend charter schools. As the Superior Court judge noted in this case, funding for charter schools necessarily affects the funding for traditional public schools. The cap is an effort to allocate education funding among all the Commonwealth's students attending these two types of publicly funded schools. Because of the statutory funding mechanism that mandates payment of charter school tuition from resources that would otherwise go to traditional public schools, the expansion of charter schools has detrimental effects on traditional public schools and the students who rely on those schools and their services. See G. L. c. 71, § 89. The process of balancing these competing values in education "calls for . . . legislative judgments as to the desirability, necessity, or lack thereof of" charter schools.