For years, Rhode Island was one of just two states in the union without a funding formula for its public schools. And then, for a time, it was the only state with that dubious distinction.
So it was with great fanfare that the General Assembly approved a formula at the close of the legislative session. Gone, supporters said, were the days of a haphazard and overly politicized distribution of education aid that left several school districts — many of them large and poor — with inadequate funding. Here, at last, was a formula that was fair and equitable.
But a small group of policy wonks and elected officials who watched the legislation closely, many of them from the state’s urban centers, argue that the bill is hardly a paragon of justice.
They charge that the state’s department of education, which shaped the legislation, crafted it to favor the hometown of a key lawmaker — Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed of Newport — at the expense of poor kids from Woonsocket to Providence.
Deborah Gist, the state’s education commissioner, vehemently disputes the charge. The formula was built on a series of policy concerns, she says, not politics. And the end result, she says, is a major improvement in how the state distributes aid.
“I can guarantee you that this formula is a night-and-day difference in terms of equity of distribution,” she says. “The system, as it stands, is wildly inequitable.”
But critics say the unusual contours of the formula, whatever its raison d’être, strongly favor the City by the Sea — or, at least, minimize what could have been a significant budget blow to the wealthy community.
The formula starts off like many others around the country. The state determines a district’s overall need by multiplying the number of students who attend its schools by the $8295 deemed necessary to educate a pupil with no special challenges. A district then gets a 40 percent bonus for each student who receives a free or reduced-price lunch – a proxy for poverty. The idea, here, is that it takes more to educate disadvantaged students.
But when it comes to determining how much of a district’s budget the state will cover and how much the locals will cover, the formula takes an unusual turn. Like many states, Rhode Island examines a community’s ability to pay — weighing its median income and the heft of its property tax base. But then, unlike any other state in the country, the formula adds a bonus factor for districts with high concentrations of poor students.
The big beneficiaries: districts studded with high-value homes that would normally place sharp limits on state aid, coupled with pockets of poor pupils that get them back in the game.
Newport, of course, perfectly fits the description.
The city, which would have lost its entire $10.8 million annual state allocation under a competing bill sponsored by State Representative Edith Ajello of Providence that relied only on a community’s ability to pay, instead retains almost 90 percent of its allotment.
And four other property-rich coastal communities that would have received nothing in state aid under the Ajello bill also benefit. Jamestown and Little Compton lose just half their annual allocations. Block Island’s $70,000 appropriation doubles rather than disappears. Narragansett adds $172,000 to its $1.5 million instead of getting wiped out.