June 9, 2009

The Funding Formula, an Update from Inside the Box

Carroll Andrew Morse

I attended last night’s meeting at the Barrington town hall organized by state Representative Joy Hearn (D – Barrington/East Providence) on the status of the education "funding formula" deliberations in the Rhode Island legislature. Speakers on the panel included Tim Duffy of the RI Association of School Committees, Barrington School Committee members Buzz Guida and James Hasenfus, as well as Representatives Hearn and Jan Malik (D – Barrington/Warren).

The most important thing I learned at the meeting is that there are actually two separate "funding formula" bills currently before the Rhode Island General Assembly.

One of the bills (H5978), referred to as the "Ajello bill" after sponsor Edith Ajello (D - Providence), was the proposal discussed most frequently in the legislative session prior to this one. The Ajello bill would take the current total of money used for state education aid and rearrange its distribution-by-community over a three-year period. At the end of the third year, the final result would be to reduce state aid to 22 communities, completely zeroing out the aid to a number of them. Because of an increase in enrollment, Barrington would see a small $28,000 increase at the end of the phase-in. Providence, of course, would be the big winner, seeing an increase of about $50 million dollars. (Some of the specific numbers reported last year in conjunction with the Ajello plan are available here and here).

The other bill (S0921), referred to as the "Gallo bill" after sponsor Hanna Gallo (D - Cranston), differs from the Ajello bill, according to the panel, in three major ways...

  1. It involves a "hold-harmless" provision, so that no community will receive less than it receives now under the present system.
  2. Instead of being phased in over a fixed-window of time, new aid would be added to existing amounts only after state revenues begin to increase and funds become "available" (but what happens in the case where revenues go up a little bit, triggering the funding formula, while entitlements and pension costs also go up a lot, which is a distinct possibility in this state?), and
  3. There would be a minimum "floor" that every community would be entitled to receive, so that when the phase-in was completed, no community could receive less than 25% of the “foundation” amount deemed adequate for that community.
Fully implementing this plan would require $187 million in new state revenues.

The dominant consensus of the officials on the panel seemed to be that...

  • Nothing is going to get passed this year.
  • The Ajello bill is too blatant a money grab by a few communities to get the support needed to pass (that's a paraphrase, though it was explicitly mentioned that the huge cut to Newport that the plan mandates will not be easy to get through the Senate while Teresa Paiva-Weed (D – Jamestown/Newport) is Senate President)
  • But some form of the Gallo bill is very likely to be given serious consideration in the next 2 to 4 years.
My initial impression is that adding the concept of the “floor” to the transfers to the funding of the usual big-recipients could result in a system where the communities in the middle get squeezed by the top and the bottom.

The Barrington residents in attendance didn't seem thrilled with either the Ajello or the Gallo plans. Sensing this dissatisfaction via my keen bloggers instincts, when the official portion of the meeting had ended, I pitched to both a set of concerned (and energetic) Barrington citizens and to one of the officials on the panel the idea of using an open districting system, where students can cross town lines to attend a school and state aid follows the student, rather than a top-down funding formula, to allocate state funds. The answers from the pitchees I talked to were nearly identical -- an interesting idea in theory, but the Barrington school system doesn't have the excess capacity necessary to make it workable at this time.

But let's not give up just yet on considering how modifying the geographic-monopoly system could help improve public education in Rhode Island...

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The Gallo bill is going to be used as the state tool to qualify for stimulus money while at the same time doing what they do best...NOTHING!

A formula that allows the state to adapt when it sees fit, it no formula at all. It's just another GA scam.

Posted by: John at June 9, 2009 6:21 PM
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