R.I. May Move To Link School Funding, Accountability

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Rhode Island lawmakers are considering a plan to direct more state aid to urban districts in expectation of improved student performance and a clear accounting of how the state's schools spend their money.

The proposal follows four months of hearings by a bicameral legislative panel charged with drafting a plan to hold schools more accountable and to revise a state funding formula with a basic structure dating back to the 1960s.

Under the measure, all 36 districts in the state would see some funding increases from their allocations this year, but most of the new money would go to a handful of urban districts.

Lawmakers must now await the release of an upcoming estimate of state revenues before holding hearings on the proposal, which they unveiled last month. The plan then could be taken up by the House Finance Committee.

The plan seeks to narrow persistent gaps in both the resources available to rich and poor districts, and their students' performance--a common theme nationwide as many states look to link funding and educational equity.

"It's basically an effort to use new dollars to tie education reform and education finance together," said Gary Sasse, who co-chairs the state's Goals 2000 panel.

A Focus on Needs

If the plan is approved, Rhode Island schools next year would receive $25 million more than the state's current spending of $411 million. Districts would then have to draft strategies for improving their students' scores on statewide 4th grade assessments. Those that did not show at least a 5 percent increase in the number of students scoring at proficient levels could face state intervention.

"We spend a lot of money in Rhode Island to make things work, and we have a lot of feedback that says it's not working," said Sen. J. Michael Lenihan, who co-chaired the panel that drafted the plan known as the Rhode Island Student Investment Initiative. Results from national assessments generally show the average performance of Rhode Island's students lagging behind their peers' in the rest of New England.

Traditionally, Rhode Island has doled out aid to districts based on what school systems spent in previous years, but the new initiative would base state aid more on districts' needs. ("R.I. Officials Seek To Tie State Aid to Needs," June 12, 1996.)

Under the plan, districts would receive additional funds based on the number of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, with limited English proficiency, or in grades K-3.

Plan supporters stress that with the increase in aid would come heightened scrutiny.

The measure would require all of the state's districts to complete new standardized reports detailing how they spend their money.

By comparing test-score results from similar schools, the lawmakers hope to find which districts are getting the best education outcomes from their investment. "If one school in a particular area is doing well and another isn't, we can ask why," Mr. Lenihan said.

Little Tax Relief

Rhode Island's school funding practices have been under fire since 1991, when three of the state's poorest districts challenged them in a lawsuit.

The plaintiffs argued that the state's overreliance on local property taxes created substantial differences in the amount of resources available to wealthy and poor districts. Providence, for example, annually spends $3,018 per pupil on instruction compared with wealthier communities such as East Greenwich, which spends $4,184, according to the state.

In 1994, lawmakers proposed a $265 million plan to close those gaps and even out the local tax burden on communities. But the legislature failed to approve the measure, and, in 1995, the state's highest court dismissed the funding suit. ("R.I. School-Finance Formula Is Upheld," Aug. 2, 1995.)

Supporters of the $25 million proposal now before the legislature concede that it won't be enough to allow urban areas to lower their local tax burden. It would, however, provide additional aid to districts with high local tax rates where school spending still falls below the state median.

"We had to make a serious effort to find out how our funds are being spent before we made any kind of huge investment," said Rep. Paul W. Crowley, the Democrat who co-chaired the panel that drafted the proposal. The plan would direct more aid to districts than a proposal made in February by Republican Gov. Lincoln C. Almond to increase state aid to districts by $12.5 million.

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