Rhode Island Foundation calls for constitutional amendment for right to public education

Group’s recommendations include revising school funding formula, more focus on multilingual learners

By: - March 27, 2023 1:02 pm
blue school lockers in foreground of hallway

A policy group organized by the Rhode Island Foundation has released a series of recommendations to stay the course to promote high quality education for public school students. (Getty image)

A new policy report from the Rhode Island Foundation released Friday called for an amendment to the state’s constitution guaranteeing a right to an education among other policy priorities.

Recommendations aimed at recruiting and retaining a diverse, qualified teaching force, providing professional development resources and revising the state’s school funding formula to meet the needs of all students emerged from the work of a Long-Term Education Planning Committee, first convened by the foundation in late 2018

“This is a collective that has established that we need to have world class education,” said Rhode Island Foundation President and CEO Neil D. Steinberg.

The committee consists of 19 Rhode Island social, political, business, and teaching professional leaders. Among them: Angélica Infante-Green, commissioner of the Rhode Island Department of Elementary and Secondary Education; Paige Clausius-Parks, executive director of the Rhode Island KIDS Count; Dolph Johnson, executive vice president and chief global human resources officer for Hasbro; Keith Oliveira, executive director of the Rhode Island League of Charter Schools; Mary Barden, executive director of the National Education Association of Rhode Island. 

The report builds momentum for a move by the Rhode Island Senate, which approved a resolution March 16 seeking a proposed constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to an education on the ballot for the 2024 general election. If approved, the constitutional amendment would enter into effect on January 1, 2025. It has yet to clear the House State Government and Elections Committee, who postponed a March 1 hearing on their version of the resolution.

 In 1995, Rhode Island’s State Supreme Court held that Article XII, the Education Article, of the Rhode Island Constitution, did not confer education as a right and thus was not subject to Article I’s Equal Protection Clause.

The report proposes amending Article I of the Constitution to read as follows: 

“Public education is a fundamental right of all Rhode Island residents. It shall, therefore, be the paramount duty of the general assembly, the department of elementary and secondary education, and other government agencies to provide all Rhode Island residents with equal opportunities to receive an education that is adequate and meaningful to permit them to achieve at high levels and to become lifelong learners, productive workers, and responsible citizens.” 

We felt strongly as a collective that providing the right to students and families is important,” Steinberg said.

More help for students developing English fluency

The group recommends reforming the state’s funding formula to give weight to multilingual language learners, a group more likely to attend high-poverty schools. 

The current Department of Elementary and Secondary Education funding formula takes poverty into account, calculating the base costs of operations, multiplied by 40%, multiplied by the poverty level of the Average Daily Membership (student body). This number is called the Student Success Factor.

Money for multilingual learner programs is classified as Categorical Funding and considered a state budgetary line item.

Clearly in this state, the number of multilingual learners has been growing,” Steinberg said. “If we don’t address their needs adequately, there will be gaps.”

According to Rhode Island Kids Count, multilingual language students representing a combined total of 92 languages account for 11% of students in Rhode Island schools. The vast majority are concentrated in the cities of Providence, Woonsocket, Central Falls, and Pawtucket where combined they make up 27% of the student body. 

Third grade multilingual language students scored significantly lower than the general population in Math and English\Language Arts assessments. Only 11% were proficient in math and 20% percent in English language assessments in 2021, compared to 40% and 52% respectively for the non-MLL population. 

In 2020, only 5% of teachers in Rhode Island held some sort of dual language program certification, according to Kids Count.

Gov. Dan McKee, in his proposed fiscal year 2024 budget, increased funding for Multilingual Language Learner education to $7.8 million.

Steinberg said the pandemic, as well as increasing retirements, plays a role in a drop in teacher retention rates in the state. To help attract more teachers to the profession in Rhode Island, the committee called for the creation of incentives that would help pay off student loans to those working in urban schools and support early career educators. Incentives should focus on retaining teachers of color and recruiting for hard to fill subjects like math and science.

“We need teachers across the board, more specifically in the urbans,” Steinberg said. “We need to make it a valued profession that is highly respected and shaping our children as the future leaders in the workforce.”

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Kevin G. Andrade
Kevin G. Andrade

Kevin G. Andrade previously covered education, housing and human services for Rhode Island Current.