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R.I. Officials Seek To Tie State Aid to Needs

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Smart investors pay close attention to their stocks' performance.

But some say that wisdom is missing from the school-funding system in Rhode Island, where state aid is doled out to districts based on how much money they spend, not how wisely that money is spent.

A growing number of Rhode Island education officials are supporting a proposal to redivide state aid for K-12 education while also demanding an analysis of the results of that investment.

"We put a whole lot of money out there with no accountability mechanism," said Rep. Paul W. Crowley, the vice chairman of the House finance committee and the proposal's lead sponsor. The Democratic lawmaker hopes to include the plan in the state's budget before the end of the current legislative session.

For now, the amount of state aid targeted for each school district depends not so much on their specific needs, but on how much the district spent two years before.

That system put many poorer systems at a disadvantage when Rhode Island's economy took a downturn in the late 1980s, and the state forced districts to pick up the slack with local property taxes.

While exacerbating inequities, the current funding system also gives policymakers little information on how money is being spent. State officials complain that they only get a vague picture of where all of the state aid goes in each district and that scant school-by-school information is reported.

"You cannot compare apples to apples in our school districts right now," said Stephanie Sullivan, the education policy adviser to Republican Gov. Lincoln C. Almond, who supports the measure. "To get some results, you've got to begin to tie funding to improved student performance."

A Clearer Picture

Mr. Crowley's proposal calls on the state education department to recommend a new state-aid system by November.

Rather than ask how much school districts spent in the past, the department would tell each district what the minimum per-pupil cost of school should be, weighing such factors as the number of students in poverty or with special needs.

The measure would require a new statewide minimum property-tax levy. Aid from the state would pay for the rest. Districts wanting to raise additional funds for local schools could tax at a rate higher than the minimum levy.

The draft proposal doesn't say what the minimum levy would be, but supporters assume it would probably be at a lower rate than in most of the state's districts.

To inject a dose of financial savvy, the state also would institute new accounting guidelines in 10 districts beginning next fiscal year. Logging school-specific--rather than districtwide--data on spending, officials hope to compare test scores to find out which schools make the best use of their resources, Rep. Crowley said.

The state could use the data to find smart ways to assist troubled districts. And if taxpayers have proof that their local taxes are being well spent, Mr. Crowley said, communities may show a greater willingness to pay for education.

After a hearing on the measure last month, members of the House finance committee are revising the proposal to offer during the state's ongoing budget debate.

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