ACLU stepping up challenge to RI graduation tests

The Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union leveled new accusations against the state Board of Education on Monday, accusing it of ignoring laws meant to keep government open and accountable amid a dispute over a new graduation testing requirement.

The claims by the ACLU and other groups are contained in an amended lawsuit that follows other complaints brought this summer over a standardized test they say is an inappropriate graduation requirement, and which puts 4,000 Rhode Island high school students at risk of not graduating this spring because of their scores.

The groups had earlier petitioned the board to consider changing the requirement, and they sued in July when the board failed to take up the petition. The ACLU filed a second lawsuit in August challenging the board's plan to hold a private retreat at which it would discuss the controversial testing requirement. A Superior Court judge ultimately ordered any discussion of testing at the August retreat be held in public.

Several weeks after the first lawsuit was filed in July, the board took up the petition on Sept. 9. It listened to some public comment on the testing requirement, but went into executive session behind closed doors, the ACLU said. During that section of the meeting, the board held a discussion and voted 6-5 to reject the petition.

Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU, said the discussion and vote should have been done openly.

"That is the essence of what the open meetings law is all about," Brown said. "They need to have the discussion in public so that all of us can understand their reasons."

Among those suing are a former Department of Education employee and a parent, who are also calling on Gov. Lincoln Chafee to intervene to uphold government transparency, something to which he has said he is committed.

"Gov. Chafee set a high bar for transparency, yet he watches silently as his board chair ducks under that bar," said Rick Richards, a former employee of the Department of Education, who is among those suing the board and its chair, Eva-Marie Mancuso.

A spokesman for Mancuso said she was reviewing the matter with the board's lawyers and had no comment.

Christine Hunsinger, a spokeswoman for the governor, said the law allows the board to privately discuss litigation, and that's what they did.

Brown called the response "truly shameful," and said while the board had the right to discuss the lawsuit in private, it is a different matter to debate and vote on the petition in a closed session.

"It's hard to imagine a more blatant violation of the open meetings law, and it's unfortunate to see the governor's office shrugging it off this way," he said.