But whatever the critique of the funding formula, supporters argue, it’s important not to lose sight of its larger value.
Elizabeth Burke Bryant, executive director of Rhode Island Kids Count, served on a technical advisory board to the legislature on the funding formula and is supportive of the bill that passed. She, like many legislators, acknowledges that the formula for distributing some $705 million in state aid isn’t perfect. But she says it marks a major improvement over the old system.
It provides some predictability for local school boards that were often left to wonder how much money they would get in a given year, she says. And it leans heavily on enrollment and student need in determining funding, rather than relying on the haphazard approach of the past. The formula, in other words, marks a substantial upgrade in fairness.
Moreover, she says, it can be tweaked down the line if needed. “It gives us the kind of architecture we can build on for years,” Bryant says.
Indeed, all the complaints, Paiva Weed gently suggests, are rooted in the parochial concerns of urban districts that wanted more money. “If you’re the city of Providence, you want as much money for your city as you can get,” she said, “and I respect that.”
Ajello, the Providence representative who sponsored the competing bill, acknowledges that her measure would have pumped more money into the city than the bill that passed.
The department of education formula, introduced by fellow Providence Representative Steven Costantino, will mean a roughly $30 million boost for the capital city. A dry run of Ajello’s bill last year suggested her measure would yield $50 million for Providence, though the representative says the total would be something less now, given a recent drop in student enrollment in the capital city and other factors.
But Ajello says her concern for disadvantaged students — not just in Providence, but in Pawtucket and Woonsocket, too — transcends any desire to bring more state money to her city. And while she voted for the department of education bill, figuring it was better than the status quo, she has lingering concerns.
The math in the formula, she contends, is bent by politics. And the bump for Newport and the other coastal communities that can afford to pay for educating their students — at the expense of others with greater need — is fundamentally unfair. “These communities shouldn’t be getting anything from the state,” she says, “because they don’t need it.”