The perverse effect, says Samuel Zurier, a lawyer and former Providence school board member who advised the capital city on the funding formula, is that a measure which ostensibly pays extra attention to issues of poverty actually pours millions into wealthy communities like Newport and Narragansett that might have gone to poorer districts in Woonsocket, Pawtucket, and Providence.
But Gist says the concentration-of-poverty factor is all about fairness: the state, she says, is obligated to take some responsibility for the poorest students, wherever they might live. And Newport, whatever its wealth, has a high concentration of poor students in its schools.
John Simmons, executive director of the business-backed Rhode Island Public Expenditures Council, says there is another reason to include the factor: the state has a responsibility to provide all communities — including the better-off — with some sort of education funding, given that Smith Hill is requiring municipalities to operate schools and setting many of the rules.
Paiva Weed, for her part, plays down any suggestion of outsized influence on the bill. The formula, she emphasizes, originated with the department of education. Asked whether she had spoken with the department about the concentration-of-poverty factor that benefitted Newport, Paiva Weed says she was one of several legislators who argued that “poverty was an issue.”
Her city, she adds, hardly reaped a windfall. “Newport took a loss under the formula,” Paiva Weed says.
Moreover, she suggests, the blunting of the potential impact on communities like Newport has the salutary effect of softening the blow to local property taxpayers, who might have been forced to make up the difference for a large cut in state aid.
Critics are quick to reply that the state’s wealthiest communities have been able to hold down property taxes for years by relying on larger-than-justified state largess. And they argue that the money going to wealthy communities like Newport could be put to far better use elsewhere.
One proposal: redirecting the cash to the state’s struggling English Language Learner, or ELL students, many of them Latino. This spring, the state’s Latino population got an “F” on what is known as the Nation’s Report Card. And Rhode Island had the worst grade in the country when it came to Latino achievement in math.
Jorge Elorza, an associate professor at Roger Williams University School of Law and co-chairman of the Latino Policy Institute at the school, noted in an op-ed in the Providence Journal in early June that some 37 other states fund ELL programs at the state level. And he argued that improving Latino achievement is vital to the long-term health of the state’s economy, given the growing size of the Latino population.
Education officials argue against a separate stream of funding for ELL students, saying it would give local districts an incentive to pad their numbers. And they maintain that ELL students will get proper services through the bill. There is, they say, substantial overlap between ELL students and a free-and-reduced-price lunch population that gets extra resources under the formula.
Elorza counters in his op-ed that the overlap between free and reduced-price lunch students and ELL students is far from perfect — there are municipalities, like Burrillville and Newport, with substantial pockets of poverty and very few ELL students — and that the state could better direct money to ELL students with a separate, targeted funding stream.