PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A high-profile bill to give Rhode Island students a constitutional right to an adequate education is dead for this year, the House speaker’s office confirmed Wednesday.

For years, some advocates have argued the best way to improve the state’s K-12 test scores would be to amend the state constitution, giving students a legal right to an equitable and adequate education.

But with the legislative session ending in a few days, Target 12 has learned Speaker Joe Shekarchi isn’t on board.

“I feel strongly that elected members of the legislature and the executive branch should set education funding and policies, not an unelected judge,” Shekarchi, D-Warwick, said in a statement. “Furthermore, the passage of the bill could result in the unintended consequence of giving legal standing to out-of-state radical groups to sue the state on educational curriculum.”

If the bill had become law, it would have allowed students to sue their school district due to unequal funding or for other educational disparities.

State Rep. Mary Messier is one of the chief sponsors of the measure and told Target 12 this was the seventh time she has introduced the legislation.

“I think he’s being very cautious about things that could cost the state money,” Messier said about Shekarchi.

She said this year seemed like it would have a different outcome, with a group of influential education leaders across the state writing to Shekarchi in May urging him to pass the amendment.

Those groups included a wide range of perspectives on education, with the Rhode Island Foundation, Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, Rhode Island KIDS COUNT, the chair of the Rhode Island Board of Education, the National Education Association of Rhode Island, the commissioner of RIDE, and more than a dozen others signing it.

“I know of fifth graders that are reading on a first grade level,” Messier said. “Kids need the right to have an adequate education, and that’s what this bill would do.”

Massachusetts, along with more than 20 other states, has the right to an adequate education in their constitutions, and the R.I. Senate backed the proposal in March.

“Massachusetts hasn’t had to put a lot of money into it,” Messier said. “But it has spurred better education for students.” 

Tim Duffy, executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, told Target 12 no one from out of state has sued in Massachusetts, which has had this constitutional amendment since 1993.

Michael DiBiase, president of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, told lawmakers earlier this year he hadn’t supported amending the state constitution in the past, but now thinks it’s necessary.

He said that while funding levels in districts like Woonsocket and Pawtucket are a major problem, other districts are also struggling.

“In Cranston and Warwick, the proportion of students that are proficient in math is less than 15 percent,” DiBiase testified in April. “We have student outcomes that are unacceptably low.”

This is a developing story. More to come.

Tolly Taylor (ttaylor@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook