[Followup: The Council authorized exploring this suit]
Today’s Projo reports that the City Council will consider retaining counsel to explore a lawsuit against the state to force adequate levels of education funding. Read the story here.
The RI Constitution provides that the General Assembly has a duty to promote education:
RI Constitution, ART XII: Duty of general assembly to promote schools and libraries. — The diffusion of knowledge, as well as of virtue among the people, being essential to the preservation of their rights and liberties, it shall be the duty of the general assembly to promote public schools and public libraries, and to adopt all means which it may deem necessary and proper to secure to the people the advantages and opportunities of education and public library services.
However, the state Supreme Court ruled in
1993 1995 that the level of funding that the state provides is totally up to the discretion of the legislature, and the Courts have no say in the matter, and no power to enforce the state’s constitutional duty. That made RI one of only 5 states whose Supreme Courts have said that they have no role in interpreting the state constitution’s education clause.
The Court also held that there is no violation of the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause if those levels are unequal across districts.
Nonetheless, a second suit might be effective at this time. For one thing, the Court’s equal protection analysis was based on funding figures for the 1989-1990 school year. If the facts that the ruling was based on have change, the ruling itself might do so as well. Recently, the state’s share of education funding has actually shrunk, while reliance on local taxes has increased.
Second, the legal landscape has changed. When the RI Court ruled in 1993, it was the beginning of a period in which state education funding systems were being challenged. At that time, only twelve state courts had overturned school funding systems similar to Rhode Island’s. By 2004, 13 more states had done so, bringing the total to 25. More suits have been filed since then. The State Supreme Court in 1993 might not have felt prepared to step out ahead of the curve. Fourteen years later, it might not want to be left behind of a wave of change that has swept much the nation.
It should be noted that this is not just about Providence alone. The suit, if filed, would be about creating adequate, predictable and rational funding for all of RI’s communities. I would expect that the suit would be filed, as in 1993, by a coalition of cities and towns.
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