Court rejects challenge to RI school funding formula

By Matt Plain

The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently rejected a constitutional challenge to the state’s education funding formula established in 2010, ruling that the General Assembly’s authority in promoting education as it sees fit cannot be disturbed by the judiciary except in rare circumstances.

The school committees for Woonsocket and Pawtucket, along with their respective superintendents, sued Gov. Chafee and leaders of the General Assembly claiming that the school funding formula fails to allocate adequate resources to less affluent communities to help them meet the minimum academic standards mandated by the state government for all Rhode Island students. (Woonsocket School Committee, et al. v. Chafee, et al., R.I Supreme Ct. No. 2012-271.)

Their claim was based primarily on the state constitution’s education clause (article 12, section 1), which states that the General Assembly has the “duty … to promote public schools, and to adopt all means which they may deem necessary and proper to secure … the advantages and opportunities of education.”

The 2010 funding formula allocates education costs between local communities and the state based on a mathematical ratio that considers each community’s relative share of property value per pupil and median family income.

The school committees in essence argued that the funding formula harms communities with weak property-tax bases.

The court – while acknowledging the financial challenges lower income communities face in preparing students to meet minimum state-mandated academic standards – deferred to the Legislature’s judgment.

Lawmakers have “plenary” power (essentially unlimited authority) in formulating how they promote public education, according to the court.
“We are sensitive to the plaintiffs’ concerns,” the court wrote, “but the General Assembly has exclusive authority to regulate the allocation of resources for public education.”

While the court reserved for itself the general authority to review funding laws that violate the General Assembly’s constitutional mandate to support and promote education, in this case the plaintiffs sought impermissible relief, namely, asking the court to substitute its judgment over the Legislature on whether a particular policy benefits public education.

The court upheld a Superior Court order dismissing the plaintiffs’ claim for a failure to state a claim for legal relief. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court’s opinion pointedly observed that the plaintiffs’ factual allegations “make a strong case to suggest that the current funding system is not beneficial to students in Pawtucket and Woonsocket, especially when compared to other municipalities.”

The court further commented that it is “deeply concerned by the conditions” of schools in those two communities, “as well as by the alleged predicaments of those municipalities regarding their inabilities to allocate the funding required to meet state mandates.”

However, the General Assembly, not the judiciary, is charged with the constitutional responsibility of implementing measures that promote and support public schools in the state, the court wrote.

This strong dicta from the court certainly supports the arguments of communities challenging the 2010 funding formula, however, any reform or relief will have to come in the legislative and regulatory arenas.

Matt is a partner at Barton Gilman where he focuses on school law, employment law, and civil litigation.