For the first time in more than 15 years, Rhode Island has a statewide school funding formula that supporters say will more equitably dole out money to its public schools, though the new system has hardly settled the debate over how best to divvy up state aid for public education.
The formula, approved by Rhode Island legislators and signed into law late last month by Republican Gov. Donald L. Carcieri, establishes a baseline funding amount for every student in the state. It also provides additional money—40 percent over the base—for every student who meets the poverty guidelines for the federal free- and reduced-price meals program.
Rhode Island had been the only state in the nation without a statewide formula for distributing education aid.
The new formula is linked to student enrollment and accounts for a community’s ability to pay local school costs. Districts with increased student enrollments or that serve large numbers of poor students will see their state share of aid rise, while those with falling enrollment or fewer poor students will see their funding decrease. The formula takes effect in the 2011-12 school year.
For years, the state’s districts have had wide disparities in per-pupil funding, ranging from $11,000 per student in one poorer district to more than $19,000 per student in more affluent communities.
“This is about equitable distribution that is consistent, transparent, and understood by everyone,” said Deborah A. Gist, Rhode Island’s education commissioner. “This formula directs state funds in ways that reflect our policy priorities, and that includes ensuring a good education for every Rhode Island student and making sure that we close achievement gaps.”
State officials have been grappling for years with how to best distribute aid to districts—especially since 1995, when an old formula was scrapped following widespread complaints that it was inequitable—though they could never reach political consensus.
But with Ms. Gist taking over last August as commissioner of education, other state officials motivated to devise a new formula, and long-standing pressures from community officials and education advocates to come up with a fairer system, the pieces fell into place. Making the state more competitive for the $4 billion federal Race to the Top competition was another incentive.
“Obviously, when you have a situation like this, those that are benefiting from the current structure don’t want it to change,” Ms. Gist said. “We knew it would be a big mountain to climb, but felt like it was so fundamental to what we need to do to improve education outcomes in this state that we gave it a shot.”
State education officials said that under the formula’s redistribution, 71 percent of the 145,000 students enrolled in Rhode Island’s pre-K-12 public schools will benefit from more money, even though the formula requires little new spending on schools overall. The state also will assume more of the costs for special education students with particularly intense needs, regional transportation, and school construction as the new formula takes effect.
Rhode Island will spend roughly $856 million on public schools in fiscal 2011, about 34 percent of the state’s expenditures, according to officials in the state department of education.
While nearly everyone agrees that the new formula will be an improvement over the current, ad hoc system for distributing aid, some critics charge that the redistribution still shortchanges many districts, even those that will see a funding bump.
“We do not believe [the formula] is adequate in any fashion,” said Stephen M. Robinson, a Providence lawyer who is representing two Rhode Island school districts, Pawtucket and Woonsocket, that sued the state over its funding methods before the new formula was approved. “We’re grateful that people are talking about it, but they just missed the mark by a mile.”
One major flaw in the formula, Mr. Robinson said, is that it does not factor in the expense of educating students with limited English skills and those with special needs.
“It costs more to educate a child with limited English skills,” Mr. Robinson said. “Without dispute, you have to spend more to give those children the same opportunity as those who speak English.”
Tim Duffy, the executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, which represents local school boards in the state, said the formula should have assigned even more than a 40 percent bonus to the poorest students—those who qualify for free meals.
“We support the poverty weight but would have taken it one step further,” Mr. Duffy said. “We should have added emphasis to those students who are so poor that they receive free lunch. In districts like Central Falls and Providence, you have a majority of students who are eligible for free lunch, and if the intent was to drive state dollars and resources to the places with the most concentrated poverty, you could have gotten more out of this formula for those kids.”
Ms. Gist, the education commissioner, said careful consideration was given to all the possible weights that could have been included in the formula, including weights for special education and English-language learners. Architects of the formula pored over national studies and data on how certain weights had led to spikes in the numbers of students identified as English-language learners and special education students in school districts, she said.
By including the costs for personnel such as speech therapists and occupational therapists in the core formula, “we feel confident that the resources are there to serve those students,” Ms. Gist said.
The new formula, while not perfect, is a “step forward” for Rhode Island, said Nicholas C. Donohue, the president and chief executive officer of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, a Quincy, Mass.-based non-profit that invests in school improvement throughout New England.
“Being thoughtful about how you distribute resources is essential,” said Mr. Donohue, a former New Hampshire education commissioner. “I think the next state of evolution for funding formulas needs to be about student performance and attaching dollars to efficacy. On the average, poor English-language learners do worse than middle-income English speakers, but we need to figure out a way to account for those differences in performance without slipping into overcategorization of kids.”
A version of this article appeared in the August 11, 2010 edition of Education Week