Rhode Island · School Talk

Hey Santa, All I Want for Christmas is a Constitutional Right To an Education

Dear Santa,

My state of Rhode Island really needs to free itself of the shackles of shame and fix a few things for its students fast. I’m hoping you can help. While it’s true that being nonconformist can be enthralling and even a source of pride, that can’t be said of perpetuating laws that deny students their basic rights. While the rest of New England (other than Maine) guarantees its students an adequate public education, Rhode Island guarantees its students, its children, absolutely nothing. That’s right. Our lawmakers do not seem to believe that Rhode Island students should have the right to be educated.

From the Providence Journal in 2014 after the state supreme court rejected an appeal:

But the Rhode Island court also found that students do not have a “judicially enforceable” right to an education, unlike in four out of five other states in New England. (Maine is the other exception.)

Rhode Island is one of a few states in the United States where the state Constitution does not provide a right to an education.

Santa, is it any surprise that we rank DEAD LAST in the country for educating Latino students? 1 in 4 of the beautiful children in our tiny state is Latino. While some have suggested we need a task force to work on the problem, Neil Steinberg, RI Foundation president (and my husband’s boss) disagrees:

But Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, said the time for a task force is over.

If the state waits for a committee to complete its recommendations, he said, “We’ll be sitting here having this same conversation in five or six years. If you were a business and this was your fastest-growing customer base, you’d be out of business.”

He is exactly right. We force families, through compulsory education laws, to be customers. We base the product they are allowed to receive on their zip code. Well, on their income, really. And then we guarantee them nothing in our state constitution when it comes to the quality of the product. I can’t think of a more unconscionable way to treat parents and children.

And to add insult to injury, we have the audacity to jump up and cheer our rising graduation rates while we knowingly hand out fancy diplomas to students who aren’t even literate, let alone ready for college and the work force?

And before anyone comes back with how busy or swamped the legislature is, let’s just remember one very important truth. They found the time to debate and vote on what the official state appetizer should be. They picked calamari.

This is a group of lawmakers who has shown itself unable, time and time again, to honestly discuss student achievement and the gaps that persist in our schools based on race and income. But we are headed for a moment of reckoning. As low skill jobs continue to disappear, the state’s economy will not know what hit it when our current students are unable to get jobs. Our entitlement costs will rise, our economic health will suffer, and people will point the finger at the very young adults whose schools handed them a diploma and told them they were ready for the next chapter. When they weren’t.

So, it’s time. It’s time to DEMAND that our lawmakers take action on the glaring inadequacy of our state constitution when it comes to K-12 education. As it stands now, they are the only ones who have the power to put a question before the voters to amend Article 12, the education part of the state Constitution. While it’s astonishing that they haven’t already done so, our only option is to look ahead and make sure they do it in 2018. And vote them out if they don’t.

Santa, please make them do the right thing. Our children can’t wait a minute longer.

Safe travels in that sleigh and Merry Christmas!


Erika, Mom of 3 in Rhode Island

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