Students, attorneys sue to open charter school seats

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BOSTON – Representing five students who were denied seats at the city’s public charter schools, three prominent Boston lawyers are suing the state, arguing that a cap on the number of available classroom seats unconstitutionally deprives students in failing Boston schools of an equal opportunity to receive an adequate education.

Attorneys William F. Lee of Wilmer Hale, Paul F. Ware, Jr. of Goodwin Procter and Michael B. Keating of Foley Hoag filed the class-action lawsuit Sept. 15 in Suffolk Superior Court, naming Secretary of Education James A. Peyser and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education as defendants.

The lawsuit is brought on behalf of the thousands of Boston children who won’t be placed in charter classrooms even with an additional 668 spots to be allocated by lottery this year.

Public charter schools are taxpayer-funded alternative institutions that are allowed to be more independent than traditional public schools.

According to the lawsuit, “[e]ach of these children was assigned to a district school that fails to provide the adequate education that is mandated by the Massachusetts Constitution.”

State law limits both the number of public charter schools and the percentage of school districts’ funding that can be spent on charters. About 3 percent of Massachusetts students attend the state’s 80 public charter schools.

The five students, two females and three males, are all from ethnically diverse backgrounds and range from the ages of 7 to 13. The complaint says the students’ situations are dire – the family of one is considering moving out of Boston for better education while the parents of another are paying an unsustainable amount of money for a parochial school.

What the children are asking, the lawsuit states, is not admission to a particular school, but instead “that the court remove an arbitrary impediment to their ability to obtain a quality education.”

The lawyers have been considering filing the suit for many months. Earlier this year, Lee told the Boston Globe that the case is unusual not only as the first constitutional challenge to a charter cap nationwide but also as a unique partnership among large firms.

Tuesday’s action comes in addition to other initiatives, including a potential 2016 ballot question proposed by other pro-charter organizations that, if passed, would expand the number of charters.

“We don’t have any opposition to there being a ballot question and letting the public, once they understand the benefits … of charters, make its own decision,” said Ware of Goodwin Procter. “They can work in concert.”

Referring to the potential 2016 ballot question, Tom Gosnell, Massachusetts president of the American Federation of Teachers, has said that it would be better to direct funds to public schools, the State House News Service reported Monday. He inferred that charter schools are not accountable to the public and drain millions of dollars from traditional public schools.

“If nothing else, this will bring front and center the discussion about the merits of additional public charter schools,” Ware said. “And that can only be a good thing.”

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or @karabettis

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