Education leader: Momentum growing for constitutional right to fair, equitable education

PROVIDENCE – Tim Duffy has been waging a mostly one-man campaign to make fair and equitable education a constitutional right in Rhode Island.

For more than a decade, Duffy, who leads the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, has submitted this bill before the General Assembly, only to see it languish.

This spring, however, the full Senate passed the bill, which, if successful in the House, would put the question before voters on the November ballot.

More: RI Senate approves a ballot question to guarantee the constitutional right to an education

Opinion/Duffy: Equal education in RI should be a constitutional right

Tim Duffy, head of the RI Association of School Committees, on the power of a constitutional right to equitable education: "It would enable students to sue their school district under the Equal Protection clause of the Rhode Island Constitution."
Tim Duffy, head of the RI Association of School Committees, on the power of a constitutional right to equitable education: "It would enable students to sue their school district under the Equal Protection clause of the Rhode Island Constitution."

Now, for the first time, more than two dozen business and education leaders have written a letter urging House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi to put the matter before voters.

The signatories include Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, state education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green, Barbara Cottam, chairwoman of the Board of Education, Hasbro’s executive director and the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce.

The Journal asked Duffy to explain the bill’s significance. Here are his responses, edited for length.

What is a constitutional right to a fair and equitable education?

First, there isn’t a federal right to an education. The Supreme Court has ruled that it’s up to the states to make that determination.

The most recent suit was filed by a dozen Rhode Island students who claimed the state, by denying them a robust civics education, was limiting their ability to participate in a democratic society. The argument was rejected by a U.S. District Court judge but later upheld by the First Circuit Court of Appeals.

More: Federal court denies RI students' appeal claiming constitutional right to civics education

“The plaintiffs looked at the lack of a civics education and said it made them uninformed citizens, unable to exercise their voting franchise,” Duffy said.

What kind of action would this constitutional amendment allow?

It would enable students to sue their school district under the Equal Protection clause of the Rhode Island Constitution.

“A student could say, ’My school district’s funding is $2,000 less than the statewide average,” Duffy said. “Under the Equal Protection clause, the state can’t say, ‘Black people can’t vote.’ You can’t deny a citizen the right to vote, and you can’t deny them the rights that other citizens enjoy.”

Have their been any previous lawsuits that have taken on this issue?

Woonsocket and Pawtucket have twice asked the courts to establish a constitutional right to a fair and equitable education, claiming their students were being short-changed.

In the 1994 case, a Superior Court judge ruled in their favor but it was later overturned by the state Supreme Court. In 2010, the towns sued again. This time, the state Supreme Court refused to overturn the prior court’s ruling.

“The premise behind the Woonsocket and Pawtucket suit was, ‘We can’t raise property taxes any more. Our poverty is massive. We can’t expand our tax base and we have the neediest kids.”

The towns thought they had a good argument during their second lawsuit because the new federal education law, No Child Left Behind, required states to assess students annually, set specific academic goals and hold districts accountable for meeting those goals.

Do other states provide a constitutional right to an education?

Twenty-four states do, including Massachusetts and Vermont.

In 1993, a lawsuit challenged the way Bay State schools, especially schools in poor, minority neighborhoods, were funded. The state Supreme Judicial Court subsequently ruled that students did have a constitutional right to an adequate and equitable education.

“It’s not a right in Rhode Island because our (Supreme Court) stated, “… there was no requirement that public education be provided at all in this state.”

The court also ruled that the legislature has sole authority to correct any funding deficiencies.

Since those lawsuits were filed, the General Assembly has created a school funding formula designed to narrow funding disparities between rich and poor districts. It awards state education aid based on the city or town’s poverty, tax capacity and student enrollment.

Wealthy districts like Barrington absorb most of the town’s public education costs. In poorer districts like Providence, the state pays the lion’s share.

But towns are not mandated to meet the minimal benchmark – known as the core instructional amount – needed to provide a basic education.

Providence, Woonsocket and Pawtucket do not spend enough on education to cover essential services such as instruction, classroom materials and central-office costs.

Guaranteeing a constitutional right to an education would enable students to hold the state and municipalities accountable for meeting students’ basic educational needs.         

Linda Borg covers education for the Journal.

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Education leader sees momentum behind constitutional right to education