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Schools’ funding appeal bound for high court

September 25, 2013

WOONSOCKET – The appeal filed by the local school department and Pawtucket in a challenge of the adequacy of the state aid formula for distressed urban districts could be heading to a hearing by the state Supreme Court.

Stephen Robinson, a Rhode Island education attorney hired by the communities, gave the Woonsocket School Committee that forecast while updating it on the legal case during the panel’s meeting in the Woonsocket Middle School cafeteria Wednesday.

The two communities filed suit against the state in Superior Court while seeking to overturn the state’s current school funding formula as inadequate, but suffered a setback when Superior Court Judge Netti C. Vogel opted not to hold a hearing on case. Vogel accepted the state’s preliminary argument in July 2012 that the case had already been decided under a similar suit filed 20 years ago.

Vogel accepted the state’s argument that the clause in state law covering education “does not guarantee a right to an education,” Robinson told the committee.

As a result of that ruling, Woonsocket and Pawtucket filed an appeal with the Supreme Court in August 2012, Robinson said.

Robinson filed an appellant brief with the Supreme Court in August presenting the school departments’ arguments as why the case should be heard, and the state’s response is due in October, he said.

“We believe the position of Woonsocket and Pawtucket is correct,” Robinson said while explaining the communities will also be providing addendum information supporting the argument that the communities have been underfunded in state support to schools.

The Supreme Court has already turned down a state request to drop the case during the initial filings and is expected to hear arguments on appeal, according to Robinson.

“We deserve our day in court and deserve our opportunity to make arguments,” he said.

The two communities were unsuccessful in challenging the state’s school funding support for urban districts with the prior case in the 1990s, but Robinson said times have changed since then.

State government has undergone changes in its make-up as a result of separation of powers legislation, he noted, and school districts today are being held accountable for the performance of their students on state NECAP testing.

The lack of sufficient school funding for urban communities put them at a distinct disadvantage on the tests in comparison to wealthy suburban districts, and that should be a factor in the appeal, according to Robinson.

“If you don’t give us the tools, how can you expect our children to show success on NECAP?” Robinson said.

The state has argued that the state’s constitution doesn’t specifically guarantee an education to its children, contrary to the laws of most other states in the nation, he said.

Prior rulings have found that the education clause in the state constitution “confers no fundamental and constitutional right to education, nor does it guarantee an equal, adequate, and meaningful education,” Robinson said. As a result the state has argued that communities like Woonsocket, Pawtucket or Providence have no right to challenge the funding formula, he noted.

“It doesn’t matter how bad the lack of funding is in Woonsocket and Pawtucket, you just don’t have the right to complain about it,” he said.

The state average for pupil expenditures by all communities is $15,173 per year, but Pawtucket’s per-pupil spending totals $13,007, and in Woonsocket it is $13,488, Robinson said. If the state were to increase its support to Woonsocket to bring the communities’ spending up to the state average of $15,173, Woonsocket could realize an additional $10 million per year in state support for its schools, Robinson said.

Members of the School Committee suggested Robinson also visit a meeting of the City Council to provide a similar update to the counselors, and Robinson said he would make those arrangements. The communities are seeking to have Vogel’s finding overturned by the Supreme Court and the matter returned to the Superior Court for a trial to be held on the merits of the case, according to Robinson.

“It is an urban problem that the state does not properly fund education, and this is a civil rights issue for children,” he said.

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