January 14, 2008

Differences of What's on the Table

Justin Katz

Clarity on meaning is going to be absolutely crucial as competing visions are put forward to solve Rhode Island's ills, and one pair of concepts that may have confusing overlaps in education policy is "statewide funding formula" versus a "statewide teacher contract."

The former phrase, as came out in my discussion yesterday with Representative Joe Amaral (R, Tiverton/Portsmouth) refers to an equation whereby the state provides a predictable amount of money to districts based on set criteria. Such a formula could be devised fairly or unfairly, depending on how carefully the criteria are termed in order to benefit certain districts (such as Providence) according to a priori demands and on whether the formula makes unfunded mandates from the state less tenable.

The latter phrase appears to be the wishlist approach of officials in East Providence:

The school district has been running with a deficit for the last six years. The highest amount was over $2.7 million in 2004, but since then it has been reduced to as little as $1.3 million in 2006.

It's back up again and school and city officials said this week that it will take multiple measures to rid the nearly $3.3-million deficit that will be a reality at the end of this fiscal year.

At a joint meeting Monday, the City Council and School Committee brainstormed a slew of cost-saving possibilities. They included reducing the state's 36 school districts to five regional operations; privatization of some schools; selling or leasing the school administration building on Burnside Avenue; and pushing the General Assembly for relief and a statewide teacher contract.

Whether the state steps in to unify the districts or "just" to negotiate teacher remuneration via a single contract from border to border, the result would likely be catastrophic. All that such centralization would accomplish would be pulling the tax-draining practices of the education establishment (including the unions) further away from the voters and probably adding a few more layers of obscurity on the question of who should be held accountable for excesses.

My own preference would be for the state to act as little more than an escrow holder paying out tax funds to parents' chosen schools. Until such a system becomes politically feasible, though, state disbursement of education funds ought to be as straightforward and evenly distributed as possible, with no demands that aren't inherently tied to funds.

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Greeeaaatttt. So Montalbano can negotiate the statewide teacher contract 'on behalf of the taxpayers'?

I think we're going to get a shellgame that makes it sound like a great idea and ends up screwing us far worse and in ways that will take yet another FBI investigation to uncover.

Speaking of which, WTF is going on with "Operation: Waste of a Dollar"?

Posted by: Greg at January 14, 2008 2:52 PM

"They included reducing the state's 36 school districts to five regional operations; privatization of some schools; selling or leasing the school administration building on Burnside Avenue; and pushing the General Assembly for relief and a statewide teacher contract."

Respectfully, none of these will balance your budget.

You need to look at the largest expenditure item in it, see how you have been increasing it, choose a spending set point of, say, five years ago, and adjust it back to that.

Posted by: Monique at January 14, 2008 3:33 PM

1) Repeal the statute allowing teachers unions to exist in this State. The General Assembly could do this with the proverbial stroke of the pen ... "for the children."

2) Uniform per-child vouchers that follow the child to the school of the parent's choosing - public or private.

3) Children in Rhode Island - no matter their family's means or place of residence - will finally have an opportunity to receive a quality education and grasp that first rung of the ladder of upward mobility.

Posted by: Tom W at January 14, 2008 3:48 PM

Disantling the Soviet-style "public" schools and starting a voucher system which increases for inflation only is the only way to strangle the unions and permanently control costs.

Posted by: Mike at January 14, 2008 7:13 PM

Monique wants to roll back teachers' wages to their 2002 level. TomW wants to ban unions and establish vouchers (as I recall, he wants the full dollar amount spent per public school child).

Is there any likelihood that either will actually happen? Is there any plan to accomplish these goals?

Instead, consider a more realistic alternative We could do almost everything that Mass .has done to make itself the #1 public education state in the country. Mass has collective bargaining and high salaries but, by copying what they do, we could make RI public education worth what we pay for it.

Here are some of the steps:
-Establish Pilot Schools. Give principals more power to fire bad teachers.
-Eliminate the absolute priority of seniority over qualifications and talent. In particular, eliminate :"bumping" based on seniority only.
-Create a state requirement that districts design and implement more rigorous evaluation of teachers. Make pre-tenure review more rigorous. Establish content-knowledge testing for teachers.
-Eliminate our very heavy reliance on property taxes. This would take the burden off retirees and others on fixed incomes and puts it on those better able to bear it.

Expect to see some or all of these things come to the floor of the General Assembly this Spring. When they do, write your legislators in support. If they don't, ask your legislator why not. Please do not listen to those who say change is impossible. It's a self-fulfilling prophesy that only make us weaker. As well, please do not listen to those who say that no change is desirable unless it constitutes a radical overthrow of the current system. They are almost never right, and they rarely have serious plans to achieve their goals.

Posted by: Thomas Schmeling at January 14, 2008 8:54 PM

>>Instead, consider a more realistic alternative We could do almost everything that Mass .has done to make itself the #1 public education state in the country.

Pat Crowley just flipped you the bird!

>>Is there any likelihood that either will actually happen? Is there any plan to accomplish these goals?

At one time the Soviet Union appeared that it could overtake the U.S., and until shortly before its end it seemed inconceivable that it would be relegated to the ash heap of history.

There are parallels. Like the Soviet Union, the teachers unions present an unjustifiable and negative presence - one which will fail if exposed to competition. Wherever they are present, the schools will not live up to their potential - even in MA.

For now the conventional wisdom is that the teachers unions are permanent and omnipotent in RI (and nationally). But by their very nature they will continue to overreach and ... coupled with the fact that each year more and more citizens are wising up to them (how many Tiverton citizens have been appalled at the thuggish tactics there?) and ... coupled with the fact that many teachers are embarrassed by they union and would like to regain true professional status and the public esteem that accompanies it, and ... eventually a critical mass will be reached, the public will revolt and demand that NEA / AFT be banished from our schools.

BTW, speaking of MA, its performance looks good in comparison to U.S. averages, but since U.S. education is below average in comparison to OECD countries, emulating MA would certainly improve RI public education, but is hardly a stretch goal or aspiration to world class standards.

Posted by: Tom W at January 14, 2008 9:24 PM

"...state disbursement of education funds ought to be as straightforward and evenly distributed as possible, with no demands that aren't inherently tied to funds."

Justin, what exactly does this mean?

Posted by: John at January 14, 2008 10:36 PM

I'm afraid I lack TomW's confidence in historical inevitability. Therefore, I will continue to support plugging along in the hope of creating what incremental change is possible today, rather than waiting for an eventual revolt of the masses.

As for the US-OECD comparisons, Massachusetts came in 6th in math (behind 5 countries but ahead of 41 countries) and 8th in Science. That's "world class", yes? http://www.all4ed.org/publication_material/straight_as/12032007. I'd be very, very, proud of RI if we could achieve anything close to that.

Posted by: Thomas Schmeling at January 14, 2008 10:53 PM


Essentially, I'm agreeing with Amaral's suggestion in my conversation with him that state funding ought to follow objective criteria that are openly applied and easy to track, and that the state government oughtn't send unfunded mandates to the towns.

Posted by: Justin Katz at January 14, 2008 11:08 PM

Thomas, the point is not what level of teacher compensation I prefer, it's that East Providence officials are looking in all the wrong places for the source of their significant operating deficit. East Providence officials needs to look inwards, to the contracts which they signed.

In fact, generosity in teacher contracts is a statewide trend, as Marc Comtois cited with that recent study:

"Rhode Island teachers are the highest paid in the nation when compared with other similar professions in the state."

In short, there is some room in East Providence and throughout the state for adjustment of compensation. This is a good thing because with that high compensation has come high taxes. Maxed out, in fact.

It's a two way street, as the expression goes. Or at least, now that we have hit the ceiling in contracts, it needs to become two way.

Posted by: Monique at January 15, 2008 11:54 AM


We could try to pay less for what we're getting, get more for what we're paying or, possibly, pay less AND get more. I'm trying to focus on getting more. You focus on cutting costs.

I took you at your word when you said you wanted to roll back teacher salaries 5 years, and expressed my opinion that that was not a realistic goal.

As a practical matter, I would be very interested in hearing serious proposals for how we should set teacher salaries, as opposed to complaints that they're too high.

Posted by: Thomas Schmeling at January 15, 2008 9:04 PM

In the least surprising obituary since Anna Nicole the "funding formula" is officialy dead. Anyone shocked? Guess the progressives legislative agenda is down to minimum doghouse housing---and another Darfur resolution, of course. LOL.

School financing plan faces an uncertain future

01:00 AM EST on Wednesday, January 16, 2008

By Jennifer D. Jordan

Journal Staff Writer

PROVIDENCE — An unlikely coalition attempting to develop a statewide school-financing formula has broken apart just as the state grapples with a $600-million budget gap over two years, leaving the future of the ambitious plan in jeopardy.

A hearing to discuss the formula was scheduled for 1 p.m. today at the State House. The House Finance Committee was to hear from a consultant hired last year to help lawmakers develop the formula.

Members of the Joint Committee to Establish a Permanent Education Foundation Aid Formula said they hoped the meeting would resurrect the discussion. But it is unclear if there is enough political support to approve the formula this year.

Governor Carcieri, who supported the concept last year, says it is not a priority.

“The coming year will be a very difficult time to be discussing increased state funding for local communities, and, in essence, that is what you are talking about when you talk about a school-funding formula,” said Carcieri’s spokesman, Jeff Neal. “Unfortunately, this is probably not the year it can happen.”

But Providence Mayor David N. Cicilline says that he and other municipal leaders have not given up.

“This is an extraordinarily difficult budget year, and it will be hard for legislators to find money to invest in a variety of important things,” Cicilline said. “But we can still move forward with the concept and plan to phase it in over a number of years.”

Last year, groups that often disagree with one another — teacher unions, business-backed economic and education policy groups, children’s advocacy organizations, mayors, Carcieri and state education officials — joined lawmakers to establish a financing formula for schools.

Developing the formula was touted as one of the state’s top priorities. Officials hoped it would provide a stable financing stream from the state to local schools, and relieve pressure on local property taxes. Yet after months of meetings and thousands of dollars in studies and consultants, the project’s momentum has stalled. Studies indicate that the formula would increase the state’s contribution to education — by $95 million to several hundred million a year — at a time when the state is facing serious budget shortfalls. State officials have already warned school districts to expect no increase in state aid for the coming school year.

The state now pays an average of 38 percent of local school costs. Advocates for the financing formula want the state average contribution increased to 44 percent over a period of years.

The proposals also call for the state to establish a “foundation” aid amount of between $10,000 and $11,000 per student, adding more money for certain groups, such as low-income, special needs, and English-language learners.

Some legislators balked, seeking a better accounting of school expenditures before millions more are pumped into education. Last June, the joint committee, chaired by Rep. Edith H. Ajello, D-Providence, and Sen. Hanna M. Gallo, D-Cranston, ended the session without passing a formula.

“I am hoping to push forward the concept of a formula even if there isn’t any money,” Ajello said in a recent interview.

However, the coalition cannot agree how to proceed.

Officials at the state Department of Education say they hope progress on a formula can continue, even in a limited form. They suggest that the state begin to assume the cost of key elements outside the control of local school districts over the next few years. Local districts would receive less school aid as the state absorbed the cost.

“Even if you can’t add money to the system right away, you can streamline the system and begin to shift responsibilities,” said Deputy Education Commissioner David V. Abbott.

Teacher unions disagree, saying cost shifting does not make sense without a formula in place, according to Robert A. Walsh, executive director of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Education Association.

But Valerie Forti, executive director of the business-backed Education Partnership, says districts would need to improve student performance in exchange for the increase in state investment.

“We didn’t want to give local districts more money without getting outcomes,” said Forti, whose group pulled out of the coalition last year. “The formula should require more from districts. It might require a certain kind of professional development for teachers, or give principals more control over teacher placement, or require a longer school day and year.”

Posted by: Mike at January 16, 2008 9:48 AM
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