R.I. Board Backs Plan To Ease Reliance on Property Taxes

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The Rhode Island Board of Regents last week overwhelmingly approved a proposal that would overhaul the way the state pays for public education.

The $265 million measure, dubbed the "guaranteed student entitlement,'' is designed to minimize the state's reliance on property taxes to fund schools.

The proposal is expected to be submitted to the legislature this week for consideration. Gov. Bruce Sundlun has already indicated he favors the plan.

Drafted by Commissioner of Education Peter McWalters and other state officials, the finance reforms have widespread support in the education community.

The plan was drafted in part as a reaction to a lawsuit filed last year by three towns--Pawtucket, Woonsocket, and West Warwick--claiming that the state's education-finance system is unconstitutional.

The towns argue that the current system discriminates against poor communities, which generally have lower property values.

A ruling in the case is expected by next month, Superior Court officials said last week.

A decision in favor of the towns could rally legislative support for the bill, which may be seen as the quickest, least painless route to school-finance reform, observers said.

"I think [the ruling] will be what compels'' the state to act on the proposal, said Timothy C. Duffy, the executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees.

'Political Will' To Fund It?

Under the plan, funding would be calculated based on students' needs, rather than on the ability of communities to raise money.

The guaranteed student entitlement--which would boost the state's average per-pupil expenditure to about $6,500--also proposes setting a uniform tax rate for all communities to determine what portion of a school budget districts would pay. The provision is intended to bring down tax rates in overburdened areas.

In addition, the G.S.E. would allocate extra money to districts for students with special needs.

Some state officials have proposed paying for the new system by raising state income or sales taxes. But although several business leaders in the state have supported the G.S.E., it is not clear how they would react to a possible tax hike.

And some school officials said last week that they fear legislators will view raising taxes as a risky move in an election year.

"The question is whether the state has the political will to fund [the G.S.E.] at a level that will make it workable,'' Mr. Duffy noted.

In Need of Resources

But educators said the finance reforms would be a lifesaver to districts at a time when state aid to education has dropped sharply.

Marcia Reback, the president of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers, said the plan "recognizes that property taxes are not sufficient for funding [and] that some kids need more resources.''

Ms. Reback also praised the measure's proposed support for early-childhood education, as well as its aim to divert additional money to students with disabilities, limited English proficiency, or other special needs.

But the union leader also warned that the state will have to monitor districts closely to see that they do not unnecessarily label students as needing special education in order to receive more state aid.

State officials may also have to refine school reforms that have been proposed to accompany the G.S.E.

Under the reform proposals, districts and school-improvement councils would set long-term goals and standards for K-12 students.

Some educators have claimed that the reforms do not go far enough, however, in defining the balance of power between the councils and local school boards.

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