12 things to know about how RI might fund public schools in the future


PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A special Senate task force focused on how the state spends $1 billion in education funding each year unveiled a list of recommendations Tuesday, laying the groundwork for what will likely be a host of proposed bills in the coming months.

The task force created to study the state’s decade-old education funding formula — which determines how much money school districts receive in state aid each year — released a 188-page report of findings and recommendations following several months of meetings with state education officials, superintendents, school committee members, teachers, students and municipal leaders.

Sen. Ryan Pearson, a Cumberland Democrat and the task force’s chair, said this is a good time to revamp the funding formula, coming 10 years after it was first created, and warned that moving quickly is critical to improving educational outcomes in Rhode Island.

“We owe it to students to act as swiftly as possible; every year resources are not available is a year they lose academically,” Pearson wrote in a letter to his fellow senators.  

Here’s a cheat sheet with 12 key things to know about the task force’s findings and recommendations.

1.  State aid for education has displaced local spending

The task force reports that most communities have reduced or marginally increased local spending on education since Rhode Island passed the funding formula about a decade ago.

The formula was designed to better determine how much money each community needs to support local education, leading communities that were spending more to spend less and communities that weren’t spending enough to cough up more money.

But the task force found that over the years most communities have decided to rely more heavily on state funding rather than bolster local spending, and all but four communities decreased their local share of funding between fiscal years 2011-12 and 2017-18.

Woonsocket in fiscal 2017-18 went so far as to use $4 million in state aid to pay for costs that are supposed to be covered locally, such as retirement benefits, food services and transportation. That same year, Woonsocket, Pawtucket and Providence all failed to cover their local required expenses for education, according to the task force.

As a result, the task force has recommended requiring communities to meet their local share beginning with the fiscal 2021-22 budget. Additionally, beginning this year mayors and town managers would need to notify the state if they don’t think their communities can meet the local obligations so corrective action plans can be implemented.

“Communities took the opportunity to take their foot off the gas in many situations,” Pearson said. “The good news is that many communities are not underfunded, but there are still ones that are.”

2. RIDE needs to reorganize

The task force was sharply critical of the R.I. Department of Education’s current way of doing business, raising concerns about its ability to “execute the requirements of the curriculum and accountability reform acts passed in the last legislative session.”

The group is calling on Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green to reassess operations and determine whether employees are being used effectively so the department “can fulfill its mission.”

Pearson said there may be a need to repurpose full-time employee positions to make sure the department is operating as an organization that supports local school districts rather than only ensuring that they comply with regulations.

In her recently proposed $10.2 billion budget, Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo has requested nine new full-time employees at RIDE, which would cost about $1.4 million. Look for the Senate to scrutinize the purpose of those positions.

“We want them to take a hard look and make some hard decisions before we support new full-time employees,” Pearson said.

3. The Free and Reduced Lunch Program is a bad measure for counting students in poverty

Currently, the state provides extra money known as “Student Success Factor” funding to cover costs associated with the support of students from low-income families, English Language Learners and students with Individual Education Plans, or IEPs.

But the task force argues the measure currently used to determine how much money each district should receive – eligibility for the Free and Reduced Lunch Program – isn’t effectively capturing the total number of students within those groups.

Based on RIDE data, the current measure is missing nearly 2,700 ELL students who are not signed up for the free and reduced lunch program, meaning districts with those students are not receiving the Student Success Factor funding, according to the task force.

The group proposes the state count both ELL students and those eligible for the Free and Reduced Lunch Program to determine how much money a district should receive and eliminate any overlap between the two groups.

The new measure would cover the additional 2,700 students and cost the state an additional $200,000, according to the group.

4. Cities and towns suffer when there are major swings in property values

A big part of the current funding formula is based on the personal income and property value of each community, meaning there can be big shifts in how much state aid cities and towns receive when those factors change.

The most dramatic changes typically come with quick changes to the median household income and property revaluation, but can also happen when the number of students experiencing poverty changes quickly.

And the volatility disproportionately affects smaller communities where fewer changes can cause more dramatic changes to the factors that go into the funding formula.

As a result, the task force is proposing a 1% cap on how much state aid to each community can decrease in any given year. The proposal would cost the state about $900,000 next fiscal year, according to the task force.

5. Districts cover federally mandated transportation costs for students living in foster care out of district

If a Woonsocket student is placed into foster care in Westerly and the state determines the student should continue to attend school in Woonsocket, federal law requires Woonsocket to cover the cost of transporting the student back and forth from Westerly.

The requirement may not sound like a lot, but the task force says it’s costing school districts millions of dollars. And the issue is exacerbated in some communities where there are shortages of foster homes, which is an ongoing issue at the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families.  

The task force is proposing to expand state funding to cover the local transportation costs, arguing that communities have no control over the foster care placements and thus should not be responsible for the expenses.  

“They cover 100% of the cost and the [districts] have zero input into the decision,” Pearson said.

Pearson said the group is still determining how much the change would cost the state in future years, but RIDE data shows the cost to districts is expected to total $5 million this fiscal year.

6. Districts are flatfooted when there’s an unexpected surge in enrollment

The state uses March enrollment numbers to determine how much money districts should receive the following school year.

In some cases, however, enrollment can rapidly change from one school year to another, as happened most recently in Central Falls and Newport, according to Pearson.

Both districts had to grapple with increased costs after hundreds of students unexpectedly showed up in the first week of school.

To solve for the problem, the task force has proposed creating a new fund designed specifically to cover costs related to unexpected enrollment growth.

The task force did not propose a specific allocation for the fund, but RIDE data suggests the the cost of covering the enrollment growth between March and October of last year would have cost the state an additional $2.6 million.

A quick note: districts where enrollment falls between March and October would not be required to give money back to the state.

7. Some tax-exempt properties are counted in the funding formula

This is a wonky one.

When a business lands a tax treaty with a city or town it typically means the owner pays reduced or no taxes on that property. Currently, however, all properties with tax treaties created after 2005 are still counted at full value when calculating a community’s overall real estate value, which factors into the funding formula.

In real terms: the property value of the Wexford Innovation Center factors into the education aid received by Providence because it received a tax treaty in recent years, while the Providence Place mall does not because its tax treaty dates back to the 1990s.

The task force argued it’s unfair for cities and towns to have to account for real estate that doesn’t contribute taxes, and is proposing to account for that in the funding formula.

There’s no estimate for how much that change would cost the state.

8. Charter school tuition isn’t tied to any strategy to improve student outcomes

Arguably the most controversial proposal coming out of the task force is a major shift to how districts pay for charter schools.

The task force argues there’s currently no clear strategy for how charter schools are rolling out in Rhode Island, which has resulted in funding issues for many districts without much consideration to educational outcomes.

The group is proposing a two-prong approach.

First, approve Massachusetts-style legislation that ties charter school tuition costs to performance. For example, if a Providence student wants to leave a traditional public school to attend a charter school that has better student outcomes, the traditional school would cover 100% of the cost.

But if the charter school performs worse than the traditional school and the student still wants to attend there, the traditional school would not cover more than 50% of the cost, according to the task force. The idea, Person argues, is to incentivize a shift of students from underperforming schools to better performing schools, and not penalize traditional schools that are doing well.

“People believe that charter schools are an opportunity get a better opportunity. I understand that argument. The challenge I’ve always had is the incremental costs,” said Pearson, whose hometown of Cumberland has seen a surge in charter schools in recent decades.   

The second part of the proposal would then put a cap on the percentage of a traditional school budget that could be spent on charter school tuition, ranging between 9% and 18% based on student performance. Lower performing districts would have a higher cap and vice versa, according to the task force.

Once the traditional school reaches the spending cap, students would no longer be covered to leave for charter schools.

“This isn’t a way to reduce charter school seats. It’s not saying we close charter schools,” Pearson said. “It’s a different way to look at this issue.”  

While representing a major shift in how municipalities allocate school spending, the proposal would have no effect on how much the the state provides in educational aid, according to the task force.

9. Students and families are pursing so-called “pathways programs” for non-academic reasons

The task force raised concerns about a fast-growing segment of Rhode Island public education known as career and technical education, or pathways programs.

Target 12 has reported extensively on the issue, which is growing quickly in districts across the state as students use the school-choice program to attend schools for reasons other than academics — here’s an in-depth look at how it’s affecting public education in Rhode Island.

The task force is proposing changing the law to give superintendents authority over whether a student can attend an out-of-district pathways program, which can be costly to the sending district.

To ensure superintendents don’t abuse the power, however, the task force is proposing that all decisions may be appealed to the education commissioner if students and families feel it was made without merit.

10. The state still doesn’t fund high-cost special education and transportation costs

When the funding formula rolled out after passing a decade ago, the state determined there were certain costs – namely high-cost special education and transportation – that would not be captured by the calculation.

To remedy the problem, the state implemented so-called categorical funding, which was meant to cover those expenses. But the task force says they were never fully funded, and instead governors and lawmakers have chosen over the years to shortchange the costs.  

The task force is proposing the state fully fund the costs, which would add another $16 million to the state’s budget next fiscal year.

“These costs are not going away,” Pearson said. “And they should be funded.”

11. There’s no mention of pre-K education

Notable absent from the report is any mention of pre-K education, which is a major focus of Raimondo’s proposed budget for next fiscal year.

When asked about it, Pearson said the task force did set aside time during its hearings to discuss pre-K education, but nobody from the governor’s office showed up to testify.

Additionally, he said, there was almost no mention of pre-K education during the hours of testimony heard from members of the state’s public education system.

“We created this list of priorities based on testimony,” Pearson said. “Pre-K did not come up.”

Watch for how the Senate treats that portion of the governor’s budget.

12. Look for legislation to come out of these proposals

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio has offered his support of the legislative task force, meaning the group’s recommendations could turn into legislation with momentum.

Pearson said the task force chose these proposals specifically based on the idea that they could all be accomplished before the legislative session ends later this year.

But he’s realistic that each one will likely be met with scrutiny and additional consideration during committee hearings, likely meaning they would be changed along the way before needing the support of the House and ultimately the governor.

“I’m sure we’ll get more feedback on specific recommendations and then we’ll enact them in some form that might not be exactly the same,” Pearson said. “That’s what the legislative process is about.”

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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