PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – While the embattled Providence school district has lately dominated education headlines in Rhode Island, a newly formed legislative task force on Wednesday detailed how Pawtucket and Woonsocket are even worse off when it comes to funding.
The special Senate task force met for the first time to study Rhode Island’s education funding formula, a math equation involving property values, enrollment and the number of impoverished students in each district that ultimately determines how to allocate roughly $1 billion in annual state funding for K-12 schools.
Sen. Ryan Pearson, the task force’s leader, has been crunching numbers to determine how well schools are being funded by both the state and the communities based on the formula, which was enacted in 2010 after years of debate over how the state should parcel out school funding.
The research has revealed a myriad of challenges related to the formula, including the fact that the worst-funded districts in the state are also those with the highest rates of English language learners.
“Providence is not the worst-funded district in the state. Woonsocket beats them by a country mile, and Pawtucket is also badly underfunded,” Pearson, D-Cumberland, told Target 12. Those districts have 70% of the state’s English language learners, he said.
In Woonsocket, the task force estimated the school district is underspending by $2,336 per pupil, compared with $1,507 in Pawtucket and $281 in Providence. All other districts are either meeting or exceeding the minimum requirement for per pupil funding.
The decision to review the funding formula comes seven years after its implementation in 2012. And while Pearson said the state has largely met its funding responsibilities as set in statute, the effort has come with a heavy cost.
Since the 2011-12 fiscal year, state aid for education has risen about 38% to nearly $1 billion this fiscal year, according to a presentation made by the Senate Fiscal Office staff. The funding increase has totaled about $280 million, for an average annual growth rate of 4.2%.
Statewide K-12 public school enrollment, meanwhile, increased marginally to roughly 143,500, up from about 142,850 in 2012, according to the R.I. Department of Education.
At the heart of the issue is a debate about how much the state should spend compared to local school districts. The formula requires the state to pay toward so-called “core costs,” including in-classroom material, teaching costs and administration costs. The districts, meanwhile, are supposed to cover “non-core costs,” such as retirement benefits, food services and transportation.
For the most part, the state provides 100% of what’s required in accordance with the formula, and most municipalities – with the exception of Pawtucket, Providence and Woonsocket – pay at least the minimum amount.
Woonsocket in fiscal 2017-18 went in the opposite direction, taking nearly $4 million in state aid to pay for non-core costs. The move was not technically illegal, but Pearson said the task force will consider whether such improper use of state funds should come with some type of penalty moving forward. In Massachusetts, the state can withhold education aid if local school districts don’t follow certain funding guidelines.
“Everything needs to be on the table,” Pearson said.
Several school districts pay more that the minimum amount, including Narragansett, where the district spends about $6,000 per pupil more than what’s required.
Timothy Ryan, executive director of the Rhode Island School Superintendents Association, lauded the Senate’s decision to review the funding formula, saying many school districts – such as Woonsocket – are struggling to keep up with rising non-core costs.
“Things have changed,” Ryan said, pointing to transportation costs for students in foster care, along with the rising popularity of school-based career and technical education programs.
“It’s a big financial change since we first developed the formula,” he added.
The task force plans to hold four more hearings focused on the issue, including a top-down review of the formula and all factors affecting the cost of education in Rhode Island.
The goal is to deliver a preliminary report to the Senate around the New Year. The effort is supported by Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, who referenced the task force during the annual meeting of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council earlier this month.
“The state now provides roughly a billion dollars in aid to public elementary and secondary education. That’s one billion out of four billion in general revenue expenditures,” Ruggerio said. “Put another way, 25 cents of every state general revenue dollar goes towards elementary and secondary education. … It is an appropriate time to reassess whether these resources are being allocated in the most appropriate way.”