June 9, 2009

The Funding Formula: Considerations from Outside the Box

Carroll Andrew Morse

As the result of historical and civic inertia, the discussion over public education in Rhode Island often begins and ends with plans for shifting money between district-level bureaucracies, the assumption being that money can be sent across municipal borders, but students are inalterably trapped within them. But, especially in a state as densely populated as this one, there is no reason to limit the options in this way. And in some cases, allowing students to cross municipal borders might be the best way to help smooth out some of the inequalities in the Rhode Island public education system, helping some students to reach their full potential more effectively than a new "funding formula" ever will.

Here's a specific example. According to the statistics compiled by Information Works and provided to the public at Barrington's financial town meeting, in the 2006-2007 academic year, Providence’s Classical High School produced the second-highest number of Advanced Placement examinations scored at "college-level mastery" of any school in RI (Barrington was first, North Kingstown third). At the same time, the high schools in two of the towns bordering Providence, North Providence and Johnston, have poor track records for AP examinations, with just a single AP exam taken between the two systems. The demography of the urban ring does not explain this result. East Providence (29 AP exams passed at college level), Pawtucket (33 AP exams passed) and Central Falls (11 AP exams passed) all did better than the combined North Providence/Johnston total of one exam taken, and it is not reasonable to assume that there is no one with the ability or the desire to take AP classes living in North Providence or Johnston.

Now, if Rhode Island is moving towards a system where the state is going to be funding a greater share of public education, while some of the towns in the urban ring are unable for whatever reason to support advanced academic programs, then doesn't it make sense to open some of Providence’s programs -- especially given that Providence is a district funded largely by state revenue -- to students from other communities in the state?

For instance, wholly consistent with the spirit of the regionalization that everyone is talking about these days, how about regionalizing Classical and allowing students from North Providence and Johnston who meet the entrance requirements have access? Or, if there is a concern that this might significantly reduce the number of Providence students able to attend Classical, allowing Classical to expand and establish a "satellite" campus that allows students from educationally underserved communities to have access to an advanced academic program?

Or perhaps North Providence and Johnston and maybe a few other communities could band together, to form an advanced regional high school of their own -- but wait -- I think I just backed into a version of Cumberland Mayor Daniel McKee's "Mayoral Academy" proposal, except that Mayor McKee’s current proposal is focused on kindergarten through eighth grade, instead of high school.

OK, so maybe I didn’t back into this; maybe this is where I was headed all along, the essential point being that if Rhode Island allows one large community to have a special school -- a school that is an asset to its community and its state -- then why shouldn't Rhode Island allow other special schools to be formed, either building on what's here already, by using open districting to increase the reach of successful programs, or by trying new forms that cross town lines like the Mayoral Academies, and put the focus of education policy on good schools rather than on bureaucratic money shifting?

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A great idea! I'm sure the Mom's and Dad's in Providence, Pawtucket, Woonsocket and Central Falls will jump at the chance to enroll their kids in the Lincoln, Smithfield, Cumberland, Warwick, and Cranston systems.

I'm not sure there is a way to ever make the burbs happy when this shit finally hits the fan. That formula don't exist except by keeping what we have now, a totally discretionary funding system based on the rule of 37/20/1.

Anyway, they're all too busy feeling all superior to the the urban lowlife.

Posted by: John at June 9, 2009 6:38 PM


You sound angry at just about everyone in the above comment, like you're given in to the Rhode Island dark side that tries to convince people that we always have to be a little slower, a little more expensive, and a little less effective than the rest of the country.

But suppose, just for a moment here, that Rhode Island's political culture wasn't quite as litigous as it is, that Daniel McKee didn't have to walk on egg-shells to begin with, and was able to start right off with a version of Classical High for northern Rhode Island. Would you still say, no this can't possibly work, because it's not organized under the traditional geographic monopoly basis? That's the kind of that I'm more used to hearing from the state's entrenched interests than from your commentary.

Posted by: Andrew at June 9, 2009 7:54 PM

Yep, I'm angry.

I have the highest hopes for the Mayoral Academy. Though not nearly as much as what was needed, I was the author of the charter law changes that were passed in 1997, the changes needed at that time to make our charters eligible for Federal start up funds. I was the one who was in the meeting with Mayor McKee and others and suggested they approach their new school concept as a type of charter school so they could avoid having to overcome the challenge of getting a whole new section of law passed. I understand the concept of innovation, but I am also obligated to seek current solutions for the rest of the students left behind while these experiments are carried on outside of the range of my community.

Yes, I am angry.

The Woonsocket school representatives that testified in favor of a formula (a bad formula) today in the Senate Finance Committee hearing were ridiculed and insulted. The committee members were abusive simply because we have an ass for a mayor who likes to abuse people and falsely brag about not raising taxes when all she has accomplished is to create a classification system combined with homestead exemptions that artificially make it seem like we don't raise taxes. In fact, we now have among the lowest effective single family home (voters) tax rates (31st at last measure) in the state while chasing out business with the highest commercial rate in the state (Number 1). We have to fix that now. It won't be easy.

The generic criticism of teacher unions makes people believe that we are all in the same boat. The Woonsocket school employees have already agreed to no pay increase for both next year and the year after and reduced their current year pay by 1%, deferred for five years. Can you name one other community in the state where that kind of agreement is in place, or might even be expected to occur? The teacher contract compensation package is in the bottom third in the state. Yet we are criticized by Senators and the blogs as being among the ineffective money grabbers.

Our elementary class sizes are at an average of 23.4 per classroom across the district and in schools with odd numbers, grades are combined into multigrade classes of 23 to 25 students; any others out there at that level across their whole district? Our inclusion classes average over 22 students with only one special ed teacher and a regular ed teacher with no assistants; we've cut them all except for IEP mandated TAs. Our high school class size is at 30 and next year several programs will be cut from the class offerings so as to force class size in most elective courses as close to 30 as possible to save money. Maybe that helps to explain some of our performance problems on the tests. Oh no, that's right, we just have lazy teachers, right?

We have among the lowest per pupil administrative costs in the state according to In$ite data. Since 2003 we have cut our school staffing by 133, from 910 to 777 while experiencing a 13% enrollment decrease (884 students); a fair response I think except that it has eliminated teacher assistants still enjoyed by the students in the burbs. Over the last seven years local funding for education has grown by 12.9% while state funding has grown by 12.7%. When we factor in the impact of level funding by the state in the last two years, the city contribution will have to increase to 28.2% for FY09 to cover the deficit with the average seven year average jumping to 41.2%.

The Woonsocket School Dept is (soon may be was) part of the GHGRI, a group health care self insurance company paying administrative rates at almost the same low rate as the state now pays. Soon they may move to RIMIC where the admin fee is $28/employee/month, same as the state.

I can go on and on, yet I know there will be those out there who will scoff at my comments and ridicule the folks here trying to get legislation passed that is fair to all. Ideas like "hold harmless" and "minimum funding" are offensive concepts if we are to try to provide for equitable support based on the student, wherever they are.

Sure I'm angry.

When our budget comes up for passage I will not agree to use a super majority to override the cap in order to provide the $5 million needed to balance the school budget (They are asking for $7 million, but I know it can finish out at $5 million if the GA passes real pension reform). We were promised a fair formula when S-3050 passed. Maybe when we get that promise kept, I'll see fit to agree to support an override of the cap for whatever amount we can demonstrate is needed by the school department.

But our state Senators mock us and treat us like second class citizens. What a great state we live in.

Posted by: John at June 9, 2009 11:40 PM


Based on what you've described about tax rates and taking into account Woonsocket's school spending, you've got a mayor who's pretty clearly abusing the state education aid system. She's not using the $6,000+ per pupil her community gets from the state to overcome the posited difficulties of being a densely populated community, but to replace as much local revenue as she can, while spending a minimal amount on schools. The problem is that the "funding formula", as our legislature is trying to implement it, is completely insensitive to this type of concern about how money is being spent, and is instead based on the concept of cities-just-deserve-more, no-matter-how-strangely-they-are-run. It's wholly legitimate to ask if it's truly "fair" to take money away from taxpayers who would be willing to fund better education, to give it to units of government that don't seem to be.

Maybe there's a better formula that could take into account some of the indicators you've discussed that could fix this, but I'm skeptical. That's why I believe that the ultimate fix for this problem is to move the basic unit of education administration from being the district, to being the school itself, whether through open districting, or charters, or vouchers. Free up the teachers in Woonsocket from being tightly bound to the government run by Susan Menard, and there's no reason to expect that Woonsocket's teachers (noting, for example, that Woonsocket's AP success statistics are comparable to those of towns like North Smithfield and Middletown) wouldn't contribute to forming Northern Rhode Island's version of a regionalized Classical High.

BTW, I'd be interested in hearing more about what happened at the hearing, if you think it's worthwhile to tell.

Posted by: Andrew at June 10, 2009 7:54 AM
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