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 in late June 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, which has 145,000 students, 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. Making the state more competitive for the $4 billion federal Race to the Top competition was among the incentives in the recent successful push.
Rhode Island will spend roughly $856 million on public schools in fiscal 2011, about 34 percent of the states expenditures, according to officials in the state department of education.
A version of this article appeared in the August 11, 2010 edition of Education Week as R.I. Aims at Equity in Funding Formula