K-12 public schools in Rhode Island enroll over 145,000 students, with 39% in poverty, 5% learning English, 31% minorities, and annual expenditures over $2 billion. (Most recent NCES data)
The Rhode Island Supreme Court held, in 1995, that the then-current state constitution gave the legislature sole authority over state support of education. Citing changes to the state constitution and other factors, plaintiffs filed Woonsocket v. Carcieri to challenge the constitutionality of the state’s school funding system.
In 2012, the trial court granted defendant’s motion to dismiss, in Woonsocket v. Carcieri. Plaintiffs’ appeal is pending.
In 1995, in City of Pawtucket v. Sundlun, following a trial in which the court found for the plaintiffs, the Rhode Island Supreme Court declined to review plaintiffs’ claims that the state system of school finance violated the education and equal protection clauses of the state constitution. The court held that the state constitution did not guarantee equitable school funding and that decisions regarding state support of education were the sole province of the legislature.
In 2010, plaintiffs filed a
challenge to the state school funding system, in Woonsocket v. Carcieri.
Plaintiffs argue that, in 2004, voters repealed a section of the constitution
on which the Pawtucket court based its decision in that case, and
further contend that the evidence of inadequate resources in schools has become
starker. They request an injunction directing the state to devise and
implement a funding program that complies with state constitutional standards.
When plaintiffs originally filed the case, Rhode Island was the only state that did not have a school funding system to guide its annual allocation of K-12 education funding, and plaintiffs sought an order requiring the state to develop a school funding system, among other remedies. Later that year, the state adopted a funding system. Plaintiffs filed an amended complaint alleging that the new system under funds school districts serving low-wealth students and students learning English.
“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 advances and opportunities of education and public library services.” R.I. Const. art. XII, §§ 1-4.
In City of Pawtucket v. Sundlun, the Rhode Island Supreme Court considered the meaning of the state constitution education article. However, its holding was based in part on another section of the constitution that has since been repealed. That section stated “[t]he general assembly shall continue to exercise the powers it has heretofore exercised, unless prohibited in this Constitution.” The court determined that this “represented a knowing and an express endorsement of the Legislature's primacy over education.” Plaintiffs in the recently-filed Woonsocket case argue that, in light of this repeal, the court should reconsider its interpretation of the education article.
In Pawtucket, the court concluded that the language of the education article does not require equitable school funding because, viewed in “the context of the times in which [the language of the article] [was] adopted, it is clear that disparities in funding per pupil were simply not a concern to those who drafted the provision[ ].” 662 A.2d 40, 48-49 (1995). Later in the same decision, the court reiterated that:
"The historical context of article 12, section 1, both in the 1842 Constitution and in the 1986 Constitution that continued its policies, compels the conclusion that the education clause did not intend to guarantee an "equal, adequate, and meaningful" education because both at the time article 12 was adopted and for decades afterward, there was no requirement that public education be provided at all in this state.” Id. at 55.
The court went on to analyze the specific language of the clause, writing that:
“the word "promote" in article 12, section 1, does not mean "found" or "establish." The meaning of the word in its historical context clearly precludes such a definition, first, because the towns themselves "founded" or "established" their public schools, not the General Assembly, and, second, because the State Constitution of 1842 did not require the founding or establishing of a public school in every town. The historical evidence demonstrates that since the time article 12 was adopted, the establishment of schools has been left to the local communities although financial and other assistance were provided by the state.” Id. at 51.
Finally, the court concluded that the Education Article “vests in the General Assembly sole responsibility in the field of education,” explaining that:
“As for the remaining language of article 12, as we noted ante, a more comprehensive or discretionary grant of power is difficult to envision. Article 12, section 1, refers to "all means which it [the General Assembly] may deem necessary and proper to secure to the people the advantages and opportunities of education." (Emphasis added.) No standard or authority has been assigned to a coordinate branch of government to review the General Assembly's performance in fulfillment of its constitutional duties in this regard. The education clause leaves all such determinations to the General Assembly's broad discretion to adopt the means it deems "necessary and proper" in complying with the constitutional directive.” Id. at 51-52.
Until 2009, Rhode Island had no public preschool education program. In 2009, the state began offering prekindergarten to a small number of children in urban communities under the PreKindergarten Demonstration Project.
During 2009-2010, 126 state-funded preschool education slots became available to 4-year-olds, serving 1% of all the state's 4-year-old population.
The Rhode Island Department of Education recognizes that data-driven efforts to prepare children in urban neighborhoods for success in kindergarten and the years beyond are an invaluable investment. As such, it launched a prekindergarten pilot initiative, Rhode Island Prekindergarten Demonstration Project, in the fall of 2009.
The program’s goal is to provide universal access to Pre-K in Rhode Island within two years.
In the fall of 2009, the state appropriated $700,000 to support four of seven demonstration classrooms, with local school districts funding the other three classrooms through federal Title I dollars appropriated under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Public schools, Head Start, and private child care programs are eligible to receive funding directly and are permitted to subcontract with one another. The Prekindergarten Demonstration Project is included in the Department of Education’s funding formula and is expected to grow into a statewide prekindergarten initiative.
In addition, the Early Childhood Investment Fund and Targeted School Aid are available to school districts with significant at-risk or low-income populations. Districts may choose to use these funds for pre-K programs or early childhood services.
Finally, there is an Early Childhood Foundation which provides technical assistance and seed grants to local school districts for early childhood education programs.
Rhode Island also has a state supplement program for Head Start. However, the funding for this program was dramatically cut when the State launched the Prekindergarten Demonstration Project.
According to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), this program served only 1% of 4-year-olds during the 2009-2010 school year.
Although the Rhode Island Prekindergarten Demonstration Project only served 1% of 4-year-olds during its pilot year, the program achieved an exceptionally high 10 out of 10 benchmark rating during the 2009-2010 school year.
The benchmarks reached were:
- Comprehensive Early Learning Standards
- Teacher must have Bachelor’s degree
- Teachers must have specialized training in pre-K education
- Teacher in-service (at least 15 hours/year)
- Class size limits of 20 students
- Class ratio of 1:10 or better
- Monitoring/Site visit program
- Assistant teacher must have a Child Development Associate credential, or equivalent
- Screening/referral and support services
- Requirement to provide at least one meal a day
Through an ongoing process that begun during its pilot year, this program will be evaluated for both process quality and program impact/child outcomes.