Legal Context: Can Woonsocket Successfully Sue the State for Additional Aid?

2012-07-12

My last post ended with an important question, “Who is responsible for ensuring students are receiving a certain minimum quality education?”

This is my attempt at answering that question.

Does the state have a legal obligation to fiscally ensure that Woonsocket students are receiving an equitable, adequate, and meaningful education? San Antonio v. Rodriquez, a landmark Supreme Court case decided in 1973 determined that there was no fundamental right to education guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Since that decision, advocates for fairer education funding have focused their efforts in state courts arguing over provisions in state constitutions that include some rights to education.

In Rhode Island, the City of Pawtucket v. Sundlun in 1995 tested Article XII of the state constitution which stated “it shall be the duty of the general assembly to promote public schools…”. In this case, East Greenwich, Pawtucket, and Woonsocket sued the state claiming that the duty to promote public schools amounted to a guarantee of equitable, adequate education funding from the state, a burden not met by the current General Assembly education aid distribution.

I am not a legal expert, but I find the conclusions of the Supreme Court abundantly clear. In Pawtucket, the court decides to overturn a Superior Court decision which had earlier ruled that the state constitution guaranteed each child, “receive an equal, adequate, and meaningful education.” Pawtucket finds that the General Assembly’s responsibility to “promote” as “it sees fit” (emphasis added in the original decision) is quite narrow; the General Assembly clearly has the power to determine how to “promote” education, it has historically used that power in a way that relied on local appropriations to education, and the courts do not even have a judicable standard1to determine the General Assembly has failed to “promote” education.

The current lawsuit asserts two things have dramatically changed since Pawtucket that justify a second look and new ruling2. First, one portion of the state constitution has recently been changed that was used in the prior ruling. The Supreme Court’s decision stated:

Moreover, in no measure did the 1986 Constitution alter the plenary and exclusive powers of the General Assembly. In fact, the 1986 Constitution provided that:

The general assembly shall continue to exercise the powers it has heretofore exercised, unless prohibited in this Constitution.” Art. 6, sec. 10.

Essentially, the judge stated that this section of the state constitution meant that the legislature was retaining the right to exercise its powers as it had historically. In the case of education, this means “the power to promote public education through a statutory funding scheme and through reliance on local property taxation,” in accordance with the findings in the decision. However, Article 6, section 10 of the state constitution has subsequently been repealed. It is worth repeating what I said previously, I am not a legal expert. However, I find the argument to overturn Pawtucket on the basis that the General Assembly is no longer expressly continuing to exercise their power as previously to be weak. My understanding of the Pawtucket ruling is that the court had only strengthened importance of historical context in making this decision by leaning on this constitutional provision. The importance of historical context still remains, even without this provision. In the Pawtucket decision, the “exercise of powers it has heretofore exercised” is interpreted to mean that unchanged constitutional language reflects unchanged powers. By maintaining the same language in 1986, despite amendments offered that would have more explicitly established a right to education, the General Assembly was, in effect, affirming its intent to continue to promote education as it had in the past. The plaintiffs in the current case, presumably, will argue that without Article 6, section 10, the General Assembly is allowing the courts to reinterpret even the same language to imply a different set of rights and responsibilities than it has historically. I have to ask, if the General Assembly’s intent was to signal that Article XII should now be interpreted as establishing a right to education, why wouldn’t they have adopted new, clearer language as was proposed in 1986? Having full awareness of the decision in Pawtucket, it is hard to see that the General Assembly would signal a change in its power and responsibility to promote education through a repeal of Article 6, section 10. I would assert this change simply shifts some of the burden to the finding that the General Assembly sees fit the promot[ion] of some judicable standard right to education that is the state’s fiscal responsibility.

This is the critical piece that the plaintiffs will not find. Nowhere has the General Assembly exercised its power to promote in this way. In fact, one only has to look at how the General Assembly has acted to establish a judicable right to education to observe precisely how it sees fit. Rhode Island General Law 16-7-24, titled “Minimum appropriation by a community for approved school expenses,” is a provision that all school committees are quite familiar with. Here, the General Assembly do establish a judicable standard for education, set by the Board of Regents of Elementary and Secondary Education in regulations known as the “basic education program”. But where Pawtucket fails to establish a constitutional guarantee for state funding in a particular amount for education, Rhode Island statute is quite clear on a minimum standard for local support. The law states that “Each community shall appropriate or otherwise make available… an amount, which together with state education and federal aid… shall be not less than the costs of the basic program… The Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education shall adopt regulations for determining the basic education program…” In other words, Rhode Island statute squarely places the burden for meeting the Basic Education Program on cities and towns raising the required revenue. “A community that has a local appropriation insufficient to fund the basic education program … shall be required to increase its local appropriation…”

It seems pretty clear to me. While the plaintiffs in the current case will presumably argue that state regulations and laws do represent a judicable standard, they will be unable to find where the General Assembly, through action, has affirmed that it is the role of the state aid to meet this standard. Instead, the law directly states that local appropriations are to be increased if the Basic Education Program cannot be met. I cannot imagine that the Supreme Court would exercise its power to assert that the General Assembly’s inaction implies more about the purpose of unchanged constitutional language than the General Assembly’s actions.

In summary, although the city is again suing the state for additional education aid, it is clear in the last 15 years that the state has substantially increased its support for Woonsocket Schools3. Furthermore, previous Rhode Island Supreme Court decisions and Rhode Island law clearly places the burden of adequate school funding squarely on the shoulders of cities and towns, not the General Assembly. In my view, the changes in education law and policy since Pawtucket do not imply a change that would impact the court’s ruling.

This post is the second post of a three-part follow up on my guest post for Nesi’s Notes. Parts I and III can be found here.


  1. meaning measurable and enforceable by court room activities 

  2. Note: I have not read the complaint as I probably should have for this post. I ran out of time. However, I feel fairly certain from press coverage that I am correctly stating their main points 

  3. See my post on Nesi’s Notes 

This entry was tagged as education nesi's notes Pawtucket v. Sundlun politics rhode island ri rigl woonsocket

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