12 things you need to know about education in the state budget

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – From charter school funding to free SAT exams, everyone is buzzing about the education initiatives included in the House version of the state budget.

So what does it mean for your school district?

Here’s an overview.

1. The funding formula will be less predictable than it was.
One of the key reasons to have an education funding formula is so public schools across Rhode Island have a good idea how much they’re receiving in state aid every year. Governor Raimondo’s proposed budget kept that in mind when it recommended that school districts hold on to $355 for every student they send to a charter school. The proposal from the House is both more complex and more volatile. If approved, districts can reduce charter school tuition by either 7% or by the total cost of a slew of specific expenses charters don’t typically incur, like services for students between the ages of 18 and 21 or transportation for private school kids. Just imagine what it’s going to be like having 36 districts in the state trying to accurately calculate these figures.

2. It’s unclear what this actually means for charter schools.
Ask any charter school official in Rhode Island and they’ll tell you they knew this would be a rough year for non-traditional public schools. Both the mayoral academy folks – most notably Blackstone Valley Prep – and the independent charters – think International Charter School or Highlander – acknowledged they were willing to deal with the $355 cut in the governor’s budget, but now they’re both scrambling. Bill Fischer, spokesman for the Rhode Island mayoral academies, said the House proposal could be a $4-million immediate hit to the schools he represents. But here’s the catch. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said Tuesday night he believes “charter schools are better off by about $1 million under our plan versus the governor’s plan.” State officials actually agree with Mattiello on this one. The challenge, of course, is that no one has produced figures that show a definitive outcome. (It’s also scary that House Finance Committee members voted for the changes without seeing an outcome.)

3. Districts that send a lot of students to charters are getting help.
That means Central Falls, Cumberland, Lincoln, Pawtucket, Providence and Woonsocket. All districts that send more than 5% of their students to charter schools will receive additional aid for a period of three years. In the first year, they get $175 per student; year two is worth $100; and year three is worth $50. The governor’s proposal would have given those districts $300 per student.

4. At least we’re not Mississippi anymore.
Or Delaware and Montana, for that matter. By including funding for English language learners in the budget, Rhode Island moves away from the small group of states that do not provide any funding for ELL services. This took a lot of work, in part because some state lawmakers weren’t sold on the idea. The House came around with about $2.4 million for the program, but lawmakers are going to keep a close eye on how districts spend the money. In fact, the R.I. Department of Education (RIDE) is required to collect performance reports from districts and approve their use of the ELL funds.

5. Students can take the SAT for free.
And they’ll be able to take it in school rather than on the weekend, which is arguably even more important than not having to pay for it. The budget sets aside about $500,000 to pay for every student to take the PSAT and SAT exams once each – the state negotiated a reduced price from The College Board – a move state officials believe will substantially increase participation rates.  Now that the SAT is aligned with the Common Core State Standards, don’t be surprised if Rhode Island high schools eventually move away from the PARCC exam in favor of the more established test.

6. Every school is on track to offer computer science courses.
The House budget fully funds the governor’s $260,000 request to expand the number of schools offering computer science classes. Raimondo has set a goal of every single public school in the state offering some type of course by the 2017-18 school year. In the current school year, only 1% of Rhode Island public high school students are enrolled in computer-science courses, and Advanced Placement (AP) computer science is offered in just nine high schools.

7. Pre-K and special education are big winners.
Rhode Island is slated to add 12 pre-K sites for the 2016-17 school year, which means more than 1,000 children will be enrolled in state-funded preschool programs. On the special education side, the House budget includes $4.5 million for high-cost special needs students, which can be a budget buster for some districts each year.

8. The school construction bond won’t happen this year.
The House budget does set aside $80 million for school renovations and repairs, but Governor Raimondo also requested a $40-million bond question that would have provided an additional boost. Instead, the House wants to wait for an updated study of necessary repairs for every school – this report is expected to be out by the end of the summer – to determine how to move forward. The key to the current study is that it’s going to be the first independent audit of the state’s 278 public school buildings. (In 2013, RIDE released a similar assessment, but that review was based on information provided by individual districts rather than the same source.)

9. The House axed the governor’s proposed maintenance-of-effort requirement.
Providence hasn’t increased its local appropriation to the school department ($124.9 million) since David Cicilline was mayor.  Most communities in Rhode Island have similar stories. The reason: state law generally prohibits municipalities from cutting education funding, so they rarely increase it for fear that they’ll be bound to that level forever. The governor proposed requiring districts to increase funding to cover the rate of inflation or enrollment increases. Municipal leaders hated the idea. And the House listened.

10. Grant cuts hurt some education organizations.
With about 200 groups losing their state-funded community service grants, it’s no surprise some education organizations took a hit. Among the notable cuts were $250,000 to Teach for America, $250,000 for the United Way Summer Education Program, $62,775 for Year Up and $28,857 for a Hope High School scholarship fund.

11. If you heart transparency, you’ll love this.
School districts will now be required to post individual school budgets to the state’s uniform chart of accounts (UCOA) website. Here’s why that matters. Let’s pretend your child’s school’s tennis courts have more potholes than the roads in Providence. But every year, school officials tell you they don’t have the money to fix the tennis courts. Now you’ll be able to see how that money is being spent. This is all information that has always been available, but it will now be in one location.

12. There are still two major unanswered education questions.
The House budget includes Education Commissioner Ken Wagner’s plan to create “empowerment schools” – giving principals and teachers sweeping control over most of the major decisions made in their schools – but Speaker Mattiello has made it clear officials have not fully signed off on the idea and are still negotiating ahead of next week’s full House budget debate. Empowerment schools are supported by National Education Association Rhode Island, but opposed by the Rhode Island Federation of Teacher and Healthcare Professionals; the business community loves the proposal. Then there are the charter schools. While groups bicker about their funding levels, it’s worth noting that legislation that would require local approval for new charter schools to be built or existing ones to expand is still sitting quietly in the Senate. For her part, Governor Raimondo has vowed to veto that bill.

CORRECTION: Item #2 was edited to reflect that all of the state’s charter schools were willing to accept the $355 flat cut proposed in the governor’s budget.

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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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