Last Thursday the Funding Formula Working Group presented a draft of 20 recommendations to the public schools funding formula for delivery to Governor Gina Raimondo.
Since the release of the recommendations there has been some criticism not only that the working group made few if any specific recommendations to the formula, but also that the group was working under strict boundaries.
Raimondo created the group by executive order on October 22, 2015. Since then the group, made up of 29 members and co-chaired by both Elizabeth Burke Bryant, executive director of Kids Count Rhode Island, and Donald Sweitzer, chairman of IGT Corporation, held eight meetings before submitting their proposals.
The group was charged with examining the effectiveness and equity of the current formula, especially as it pertains to different types of public schools while using both local and national data and public commentary. The group was asked to provide recommendations that would add little to no additional funding. In the 2013-2014 school year state funding through the formula totaled $850 million with the average per pupil spending at $15,808
Without the option to add any real funding to the formula, the group’s recommendations reflect interest areas where the group would like to see changes without providing any specific revisions or adjustments.
Those biggest pushes by the group concerned English language learners (ELL), special needs students and making clearer monetary distinctions between traditional school districts, charter schools and mayoral academies.
The working group wanted to see “additional support” for ELL students, acknowledging that their instruction is costlier than traditional students and that there is an increasing population of these students throughout the state. Rhode Island is currently only one of four states in the country without designated ELL funding.
When it came to special education costs, the group noted that the cost of these students varies depending on the “intensity of services” and possibly adjusting the formula to recognize those differences in cost. Similarly, to provide better support to those districts, like Warwick, that sees the largest percentage of their student population receiving special education. About 18.1 percent of Warwick students receive special education services.
When it came to charter versus traditional schools, the group found that both have unique costs. Traditional districts also face costs for out of district placements for special education, retiree health benefits, preschool screening among other costs where charters have debt service and rental costs unique to their expenses.
Concern was expressed that in a “money follows the student” mentality, some of those funds include those costs charters don’t have to bear and “revisions are warranted.” Yet, the report says, “the funding formula should allocate funding to students based on their needs, irrespective of the type of school they attend.”
Representative Joseph McNamara, chairperson of the Health, Education and Welfare Committee, said the group covered a “very limited scope” in their recommendations; but he noted that this is due to the tight parameters set by Raimondo to begin with.
He said concerns brought up by the General Assembly about inequities between charter and traditional school funding were not addressed.
McNamara argues traditional schools take on more of the expense of students in need of special education, with charter schools seeing few if any of these students. McNamara says the current formula reimburses charters as if they are seeing these students.
“This is really unfair to districts and schools that do see a high number of those high cost students, but aren’t seeing the per pupil costs that reflect that, this creates major inequities,” McNamara said.
He said inevitably it will be up to the General Assembly to come to the terms of adjusting the formula and he hopes a there will be more pressure on adjusting the way charter and mayoral academies are funded, so it is more equitable to traditional schools to reflect a “true per pupil costs.”
He commended the group for addressing the extra costs in educating ELL students, but said they didn’t offer any real solutions.
He had reservations when the initial funding formula was put in place five years ago that ELL students weren’t weighted, and overwhelming “misgivings” because it still kept a lot expenses on cities and towns throughout the state.
He believes overall that the state needs to be making a bigger investment in education to ease the burden of cities and towns to supplement funding.
This is why he had issue with the group unable to recommend any additional funding.
“Under these restrictions, moving money around in any way, any tweak or adjustment to the formula is going to create winners and losers,” McNamara said. “To make a lot of changes like suggested without planning to add any additional funding is short sighted.”