Districts Appeal to Supreme Court in School Funding Lawsuit

Aug 13, 2013

Woonsocket and Pawtucket are asking the Rhode Island Supreme Court to intervene in their effort to get more funding from the state. The districts filed briefs late last week, arguing they do not receive enough state aid to meet the state’s basic education requirements. The districts claim their students are being denied equal access to an education, in violation of their rights under the state constitution.

In their briefs to the court, attorneys for the districts pose a hypothetical case of two children, born on the same day in the same hospital in 1996. While they receive the same treatment from hospital staff, their likelihood of making it to graduation day is vastly different because one child is from Narragansett and the other from Pawtucket.

“Those two kids would now be entering the 12th grade,” explained attorney Sam Zurier, who is arguing on behalf of the districts. “The kids from Pawtucket, the odds are better than even that those kids are unable to meet the graduation requirements, whereas the scenario would be vastly different for the kid from Narragansett.”

Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist has said the state formula for providing aid to school districts is one of the fairest in the country. It was crafted with help from Brown Education Professor Kenneth Wong and uses poverty as one of the main factors in determining funding levels for each of the state’s 39 school districts.

While the formula will increase funding for several districts over time, including Woonsocket and Pawtucket, Zurier says per pupil in those districts spending will remain roughly $2,000 below the state average. At the same time, students in Woonsocket and Pawtucket are more likely to require extra services, like instruction in English as a second language.

“The funding formula ultimately will provide an additional $1,000 per student in Pawtucket and Woonsocket, and certainly it’s better to have $1,000 per student than not,” Zurier said. “Unfortunately it’s not enough money for those students to get the quality education that is specified in the state’s regulations.” 

Zurier believes the stakes are even higher now than when the lawsuit was first filed because the state has tightened its high school graduation requirements. Students are now required to achieve a minimum score on standardized testing to earn a diploma, and the percentage of students failing to meet that bar is highest in urban areas like Pawtucket and Woonsocket.

A lower court judge dismissed the districts’ lawsuit challenging the school funding formula, ruling that lawmakers can decide how much money to give school districts.

Governor Lincoln Chafee’s office declined to comment on the Supreme Court appeal, saying it does not comment on pending legal matters.