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Board of Education To Consider Policy Change That Could Undermine Right To A Free Public Education

Posted: September 04, 2014|Category: Students' Rights

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As the result of a ruling issued earlier this year by Commissioner Deborah Gist, the R.I. Department of Education is on the verge next week of undermining 150 years of precedent that guarantee the availability of a free public education in the state. That is the essence of an alert that the ACLU of Rhode Island and Mental Health Association of Rhode Island sent out to groups that advocate for the rights of students and their families.

In the ruling, issued against a Cumberland student, the Commissioner held that, despite the significant financial burden it imposed on the family, the school district could lawfully charge a family $700 for the student to attend summer school in order to avoid being held back a grade. At its meeting this coming Monday, the Board of Education is scheduled to consider the ruling, which was recently upheld on a split vote by a committee of the Board.

Without citing any legal authority or providing a meaningful explanation, the Commissioner’s ruling overturned over 150 years of precedent in the state. In their memo to civil rights organizations, the ACLU and MHA noted: “Potentially at stake is not just the legality of this one type of fee but a whole array of fees for student services which school districts have, until now, been prohibited from imposing. The equity of educational opportunities without regard to income is at great risk.”

The memo notes that for decades, Commissioners of Education – relying on action that the legislature took back in 1868 to revoke school committee authority to charge fees for student services – have invalidated attempts to levy fees on student programming as varied as night classes, after-school activities, interscholastic sports and Advanced Placement classes. The stated logic of these decisions has always been that, from a legal perspective, the Department of Education cannot authorize what the legislature revoked and, from a policy perspective, Rhode Island should not permit the creation of lesser educational opportunities for lower income families and students.

In their memo, the two groups stated: “Permitting school districts to charge for summer school and to penalize and retain students who cannot afford such fees would only exacerbate already existing inequalities in academic achievement and drop-out rates, at the very time when closing such gaps is the professed goal of all educational leaders in the state. It could also encourage cash-strapped school districts to deny supports to struggling learners during the school year, only to charge for them during the summers. Of course, it also opens the doors for struggling school districts to begin charging for a wide array of other educational services, thereby severely undercutting the widely held notion that every child is entitled to a free public education.” The groups noted that it is “well known that retention is linked to increased risk of school failure and dropping out, problems which already occur at much higher rates among low-income students. Moreover, lower income students already have fewer supports and opportunities available to them because their families frequently cannot afford privately funded tutoring and enrichment activities.”

The memo concluded: “We are hopeful that this family, through their attorney, will be able to convince the Board of Education to overturn the Commissioner’s divisive and unprecedented ruling. If it does not, however, we believe it is important that your organization make families across the state aware of the financial consequences that may await them, and that you will join with us in seeking to overturn this decision by whatever means necessary. Nothing less than the future of a true free public education in Rhode Island is at stake.” The Cumberland case has been handled by R.I. Legal Services attorney Veronika Kot.

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