PROVIDENCE — A 10-year campaign to enshrine the constitutional right to an education has failed in the final days of the legislative session.
Only a few weeks ago, the bill looked like it had legs after more than two dozen business and education leaders, including state Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green, signed a letter urging House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi to put the matter before voters.
The bill, which passed the Senate, would place a question on the next statewide ballot asking voters to amend the state Constitution to guarantee “an equitable, adequate and meaningful education.”
The measure was sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Roger A. Picard, D-Woonsocket, and in the House by Rep. Mary Messier, D-Pawtucket.
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The Senate version passed. Then, Shekarchi weighed in.
“Based on the evidence provided at the House committee hearing, the bill will not be passing this year,” he said in a statement. “I feel strongly that elected members of the legislature and the executive branch should set education funding and policies, not an unelected judge. Furthermore, the passage of the bill could result in the unintended consequence of giving legal standing to out-of-state radical groups to sue the state on educational curriculum.”
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Tim Duffy, executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, said the real issue is that Shekarchi doesn’t want to see students and families suing school districts, primarily urban ones, over their failure to meet their share of the school funding formula . Woonsocket, for example, spends $1,600 less per pupil than the state average.
“We’re not going to see change that benefits our kids until they have a constitutional right to an education,” Duffy said.
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The bill, which Duffy supports, would enable students to sue their school district under the equal protection clause of the Rhode Island Constitution.
Ashley Kalus, the Republican candidate for governor, chimed in Thursday with this statement:
“How many times do our leaders have to let us down before we say enough is enough. It’s a disgrace that the General Assembly has failed to make education a constitutional right. Every child, regardless of race, religion, or zip code, deserves a world-class education.”
Twenty-four states, including Massachusetts and Vermont, have established such a right.
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.
Linda Borg covers education for The Journal.