May 19, 2009

Sides of a School Funding Formula

Justin Katz

I'm suspicious of Rhode Island notions of a school funding formula. Obviously, state aid has to be dispersed by some method, and a formula of sorts is intrinsic in that activity, but the emphases and consequences make a hang-up of the word "equitable."

For one thing, we in the suburbs have no reason to trust the administrators of Providence, over whom we have no direct democratic influence. Therefore, funneling a greater rate of taxpayer dollars into their accounts accomplishes, if anything, an easing of the pressure to spend wisely. Perhaps that's why some folks incline toward a greater state role in administering the education system, even though such consolidation ignores the fact that powerful special interests benefit by the consolidation of the pool in which they seek to dip their buckets.

For another thing, adjustments based on a community's "ability to pay" have a redistributive tint that is likely to exacerbate social bifurcation. If, for example, the state takes the wealth of Barrington as a reason to require that town to carry a greater percentage of its educational burden, while taking the lesser wealth of, say, Central Falls, as justification for the state's stepping in a bit more, local taxes will gradually diverge in such a way as to make a virtual gated community of the wealthier municipality.

Much more equitable, to my mind, would be a decision by the state how much it can and should spend per child and the allocation of that money to the school departments, no matter which communities they serve. (Even more equitable, I'd suggest, would be distribution of that money to the students for use wherever they wish to go, but we can only take one step at a time.)

Perhaps the solution takes the form that Julia Steiny described on Sunday. Essentially, the state would take over non-educational services that would benefit from economies of scale, such as food services and busing. (Considering their importance to the unions, I'd be wary of consolidating all healthcare contracts for the reason stated above.)

Whatever the case, reforms of Rhode Island's way of doing business will have to occur before anything resembling a reasonable strategy will be politically feasible.