Although the Rhode Island Supreme Court agreed that “the factual allegations in plaintiffs’ complaint make a strong case to suggest that the current funding system is not beneficial to students in Pawtucket and Woonsocket,” it nevertheless upheld the trial court’s decision to dismiss the case. Woonsocket Sch. Comm v. Chafee. The Court’s decision essentially re-iterated the court’s 1995 ruling in City of Pawtucket v. Sundlun that the drafters of the state constitution’s education clause, written in 1842 before there was a statewide system of compulsory education, intended to vest broad discretion in the legislature to promote education, that they did not empower the courts to review the legislature’s decisions, and that, in any event, there were no “judicially manageable standards” for shaping a workable remedy for the alleged constitutional violations.
Plaintiffs had attempted to persuade the court to reconsider Sundlun based on a number of significant statutory, regulatory and constitutional developments that had occurred over the past 15 years. The argued that the state’s General Assembly and the state education department have adopted detailed academic standards and have imposed numerous obligations on local school districts to provide meaningful educational opportunities for all students, but that they have failed to provide adequate or equitable funding to allow the districts to carry out these obligations. The petition also cited numerous state statutes and regulations, and legislatively-commissioned studies that provided concrete standards and mechanisms for remedying these inadequacies and inequities. They also argued that constitutional amendments adopted since Sundlun re-shaped the constitution’s separation of powers doctrine and opened for reconsideration the question of whether the legislature should be deemed to have unreviewable, plenary power over education.
In its current decision, the court essentially held that nothing in the recent constitutional amendments and statutory and regulatory changes affected their basic holding that the drafters of the 1842 constitutional clause intended to vest unreviewable, plenary power in the legislative branch. Despite this strong holding, the court re-iterated an enigmatic statement from Sundlun that, “ This is not to say, however, that there could not be a situation in which the General Assembly violates its constitutional mandate to support and promote education so as to warrant a judicial response.”
May 27, 2014