Attorney David Ellison’s Column on a Constitutional Right to Education in Rhode Island

Attorney David Ellison’s Column on a Constitutional Right to Education in Rhode Island

Attorney David Ellison wrote a guest column for GoLocalProv about the need for Rhode Island to have a constitutional right to an adequate education, much like the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has. You can read the column here at

“It is time Rhode Island amends the State Constitution to guarantee a right to an adequate education. Everyone agrees the recent Johns Hopkins report about the Providence Public School District casts a dark cloud on our current education system. However, it presents an opportunity for a discussion on a meaningful solution to a complicated problem.

The issues highlighted aren’t going away, and a few small changes here and there aren’t going to cut it anymore — saying we have a problem with our schools over and over will not make the problem go away.

If we don’t guarantee a right to an adequate education through the State Constitution, we are leaving any reforms to the political will at any given time – changes can be made to stall progress based on the political temperature of the Legislature. If we had an enforceable right to an adequate education, a person who is aggrieved can bring any disputes to the courts and argue their rights have been violated at any time. This will hold the state and local school districts to the fire to produce results.

In 1993, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decided a case where 16 students from 16 different cities and towns in Massachusetts sued various government officials for failing to fulfill their duty to provide them an education as mandated by the Constitution. The Court found Massachusetts to have a constitutional duty to educate all of its children – regardless of whether they are rich or poor. They went on to define what skills an educated child must possess and left it to the Legislature to implement these changes.

Nearly a few days after the Supreme Judicial Court’s decision, The Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993 was signed into law. This reform led to major increases in the amount of state aid to schools. The Act required the establishment of high standards for each student, a statewide assessment system designed to measure progress, and an accountability system to hold schools and districts responsible.

No matter what assessment you use, the Massachusetts schools have improved dramatically since then, launching them to the top of the nation.

In 1995, the Rhode Island Supreme Court took up a case on appeal to interpret whether there was a right to an adequate education. A Superior Court judge had already ruled that a child had a fundamental and constitutional right to an education and that each child is guaranteed a right to an equal, adequate, and meaningful education. Unfortunately, the Rhode Island Supreme Court overruled the Superior Court’s decision, and stated the Legislature, not the courts, should determine the adequacy of education and education funding.

A recent bill, 2019 — H 5252, was introduced to amend the State Constitution to provide the right to an adequate education. This amendment would be submitted to the electors for their approval or rejection at the next statewide general election.

We owe it to the children of Rhode Island to have an overhaul in our State’s education system. The students are our future leaders and workforce which will drive our future economy and government. An educated population will spur economic growth.

When state and local leaders go around talking about the Johns Hopkins report over the next few weeks, challenge them to commit to ensuring our students are guaranteed a right – a constitutional right – to an adequate education in the State of Rhode Island.”

David Ellison is a graduate of Providence Public Schools, a former attorney for the Providence School Board and runs his own law practice, the Law Office of David Ellison, where he focuses on criminal defense and personal injury law.

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