The public schools enroll 142,000 students: 62% White, 23% Latino, and 8% African American, with 46% living in poverty and 7% learning English. The State spends $14,889 per pupil. (Most recent NCES data)
“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.
“The general assembly shall make all necessary provisions by law for carrying this article into effect. It shall not divert said money or fund from the aforesaid uses, nor borrow, appropriate, or use the same, or any part thereof, for any other purpose, under any pretence whatsoever.” R.I. Const. art. XII, § 4.
In 1995, in City of Pawtucket v. Sundlun, 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 equal per-pupil school funding and vested decisions regarding state support of education in the province of the Legislature.
The Court wrote: “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.”
In 2014, in Woonsocket v. Carcieri, plaintiffs alleged that evidence of resource deficits in the schools had become stark; the State funding system underfunded school districts serving low-wealth students and students learning English; and, therefore, the State was denying students their right to an education. However, the Rhode Island Supreme Court affirmed a lower court’s order to dismiss the case, relying on its 1995 ruling in Pawtucket. The Court held that education was not a fundamental right in Rhode Island, and found that the State’s separation of powers doctrine means that the Legislature, not the courts, determines the adequacy of education and education funding.