Here’s how RI could change its education funding formula

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island leaders should consider revamping the state’s education formula to consider charter school participation, English language learners and special needs students, according to a report released Thursday by a working group established by Gov. Gina Raimondo.

The 29-member group, co-chaired by IGT Corporation Chairman Donald Sweitzer and Rhode Island Kids Count executive director Elizabeth Burke Bryant, unveiled 20 recommendations aimed at improving the five-year-old funding formula.

While any changes will ultimately be decided by Raimondo and the General Assembly, here’s an overview of the key findings from the working group.

There are no direct financial recommendations.
With just two-and-a-half months and eight meetings to prepare, the working group had a tall task: make a slew of policy recommendations that will have little to no effect on the actual money that goes into the education funding formula. In fact, one of the general conclusions in the report states, “adding more money, in and of itself, is not the solution to the state’s educational problems.” Rhode Island is now in the fifth year of a transition period to a formula that was designed to provide districts with a predictable and transparent allocation of state education funds. Critics have argued that the formula should include considerations for students with special needs, English language learners, transportation and students who attend charter schools rather than traditional public schools. The working group did include many of those factors in their recommendations, but did not explain how much any of their proposed changes would cost.

The working group doubled down on “money follows the child.”
If you follow education in Rhode Island, you’ve probably heard the phrase “money follows the child.” State law requires that the per-pupil figure assigned to public school students in any district must remain in place even if the student chooses to attend a public charter school or career and technical school. In other words, if you’re worth $10,000 at Pleasant View Elementary School, you’re also worth $10,000 at the Achievement First Mayoral Academy. In its findings, the working group agreed that the formula should “allocate funding to students based on their needs, irrespective of the type of public school they attend.”

Charter school funding could see changes.
Even though the working group generally agrees that money should continue to follow the student, it found that the formula should be revised due to “verifiable differences in average expense profiles between traditional districts and charter public schools.” On the traditional public school side, that includes paying for out-of-district special education placements, retiree health benefits, services for special students between the ages of 18 and 21, pre-school screening and services, transporting students to private schools as well as covering the cost of their textbooks and tuition for career and technical schools. On the charter school end, that includes debt service and rental costs for school buildings. The group made no recommendation on how to adjust those factors, but said any changes should be “limited to clear and evident groups of expenses that the result of differences in statute or regulation or to overwhelming differences in practice.” The group also said the state should “consider providing additional support to traditional districts with high percentages of students enrolled in public schools of choice.

English language learners (ELL) could get additional support.
The group found that Rhode Island is one of only four states in the country that doesn’t have designated ELL funding even though the state’s ELL student population has grown from 5.7% in 2010 to 7.3% in 2015. (In Providence, the ELL population jumped from 16.6% to 23.1% over the same period.) The group recommended that the state provides additional financial support for ELL students, but stated that any change to the formula should include “reasonable restrictions to ensure that the money is used to benefit ELLs” and “promote the appropriate exiting of ELL students from services.”

The state should address special education costs.
As it stands now, the funding formula assigns a flat amount for all students with special needs without considering the services that are being provided. School districts are also required to cover the cost of sending certain students out of district to better address their needs, which can be a budget buster for municipalities. The working group said the state should consider providing additional support for those high-cost special needs students.

The state should review career and technical education funding.
The working group’s recommendations were relatively vague when it came to career and technical schools, but the gist is that funding for those programs should be reviewed to ensure they are focused on quality and efficiency. The group found that career and technical education tends to be more expensive than a traditional public school education, but that the “additional cost is a worthwhile investment” when delivered well.

Local education funding is coming under the microscope.
While the state has increased education aid to cities and towns by $179.4 million since 2011 – all but 10 districts haven seen a net increase in the funding formula – many municipalities have been hard-pressed to increase local funding at the same pace. In Providence, for example, city officials have level-funded the school department at $124.9 million for six straight years. (Rhode Island has a “maintenance of effort” law that generally prohibits communities from cutting education funding, so officials are hesitant about increasing funding unless they know they can afford it for many years to come.) The working group suggested the state should require districts to increase funding to “account for reasonable factors such as inflation and enrollment increases.”

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

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