SJC Upholds Massachusetts Cap on Charter Schools

On April 24, 2018, the Supreme Judicial Court held in Doe No. 1 v. Secretary of Education (SJC-12275) that students who attend public schools in Massachusetts are not constitutionally entitled to attend charter schools.  Five students filed a complaint in Superior Court challenging G.L. c. 71, § 89(i), which caps the number of all charter schools in the state (with the exception of “Horace Mann II” schools) and also caps the funding that commonwealth charter schools receive.  The plaintiffs alleged that the statutory caps violate both the education clause and the equal protection clause of the Massachusetts Constitution.  The Superior Court dismissed the complaint and the students appealed.

Under the statute, there is a cap of 120 total charter schools allowed in the Commonwealth. No more than 72 of those schools may be “commonwealth charter schools,” which operate independently of the school district where they are located but still receive funding from that district.  In addition, the statute provides that the funding from the sending district to commonwealth charters may not exceed 9% of the district’s net school spending; unless the sending district is in the lowest 10% of performing districts statewide, in which case the funding limits are raised to 18%.  (The other type of charter school, a Horace Mann charter, must be approved by the school district and the bargaining unit in which it is located, and receives funding as determined by the district.)

On appeal, the court first decided that the plaintiffs had sufficiently asserted a justiciable controversy and their right to bring their claims. It then addressed the merits of those claims.

The plaintiffs attend schools that are subject to the 18% cap and have been unable to obtain spaces in charter schools through a lottery process. They alleged that the education they are receiving is constitutionally inadequate under the education clause, which imposes a duty on the Commonwealth to educate all children.  The plaintiffs claimed that this deprivation is caused by the charter school cap, which prevents them from attending a better-performing school and thereby receiving a constitutionally adequate education.  The court disagreed, ruling that while the plaintiffs may be receiving an inadequate education at the moment, they would need to demonstrate that the Commonwealth had failed to fulfill its duty to educate all of its children and that the Commonwealth’s public education plan does not offer reasonable assurance of an opportunity for an adequate education.

Alternatively, the plaintiffs alleged that the charter caps violate the equal protection clause of the Massachusetts constitution because they create two classes of children: those guaranteed to receive the opportunity for an adequate education because their districts provide one, and those in failing districts that rely on the charter lottery system for the prospect of an adequate education. The court rejected this claim as well.  It held that because the charter caps did not significantly interfere with any fundamental right to an education or target a suspect class, the court would not evaluate the statute by applying “heightened scrutiny.”  Instead the court decided that the statute could be upheld so long as it was rationally related to the furtherance of a legitimate state interest.  Noting that charter school funding affects the funding available to the district’s traditional public schools, the court concluded that the caps further the interests of students who do not attend charter schools by limiting the funding impact on their schools and serve as an effort to allocate educational funding among the Commonwealth’s students.  The court therefore held that the caps further a legitimate state interest and satisfy the “rational basis” test.

Obviously, this case has importance for school districts in Massachusetts which must annually wrestle with school budgets and enrollment issues. The court noted that charter schools and the caps continue to be a source of public debate in and outside the Legislature.  School districts are well-advised to keep abreast of developments.

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This update is provided for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice.