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R.I. School-Finance Formula Is Upheld

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The Rhode Island Supreme Court has upheld the state's school-finance formula, reversing a lower-court decision that found the system favored wealthy communities.

State lawmakers--not the courts--have the responsibility for insuring the right to an education under the state constitution, the high court held last month in overturning the 1994 ruling.

While the supreme court acknowledged that there are funding gaps in the current system, Justice Victoria Lederberg said changes must be initiated by the legislature. But she also cautioned that money alone does not determine whether a student is receiving an adequate education.

Three Rhode Island cities--Pawtucket, Woonsocket, and West Warwick--sued the state in 1991 over its method of distributing school aid.

Lawyers for the cities argued that the state's reliance on property taxes to pay for education discriminates against poorer communities, where real-estate values generally are lower than those of more well-to-do areas.

Last year, a superior-court judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, saying the financing system gave students in affluent districts an unfair advantage. The court also ordered the legislature to come up with a new plan.

Then-Gov. Bruce Sundlun and his education advisers backed a proposal to equalize funding by setting a uniform tax rate for all communities. The plan was presented to the legislature, where it attracted some support but eventually languished.

The Senate resisted efforts to overhaul the system and last spring appealed the superior-court ruling. (See Education Week, 4/20/94.)

'A Softer Landing'

Gov. Lincoln C. Almond, who succeeded Mr. Sundlun this year, praised the supreme court's decision, saying the ruling "provides a softer landing so we can make changes in our educational system without causing any undue harm to the taxpayers."

But some education groups were stunned by the ruling. Some said they feared that little would change for poor school systems.

"I'm concerned that the legislature will continue to look at a piecemeal approach" to the funding gap, said Timothy Duffy, the executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees. "A lot of inner-city communities are very concerned and upset about this."

But the supreme court said in its ruling that those districts would not necessarily provide students a better education with more state aid.

The court cited a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision involving desegregation in Kansas City, Mo., where black students' performance on national tests has lagged despite massive state expenditures to improve the district's schools.

It also pointed to recent studies suggesting that student achievement is closely linked to parent involvement, and not necessarily to higher spending.

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