PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A newly released report shows high-poverty Rhode Island K-12 public school districts receive less money than their wealthier peers, a trend that’s been happening for more than a decade.
Rutgers University education professor Bruce Baker, who co-authored the report with the Albert Shanker Institute, found the Woonsocket, Pawtucket, Central Falls and Providence school districts received 13.5% less education funding than wealthier districts. Ideally, Baker said, high-poverty districts should receive 10% more funding than their wealthier peers, as the extra money can help level the playing field.
“The infusion of additional financial resources into high-needs settings where there haven’t previously been those resources helps to improve student outcomes, helps to close achievement gaps,” Baker told Target 12. He said that dynamic isn’t happening in Rhode Island, according to funding data from the 2018-19 school year.
“So those kids just really don’t have equal opportunity to achieve the same outcome goals,” Baker said.
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The report found Rhode Island ranks third nationwide in its education spending per capita, but the state ranks 38th in the country in how it uses those education dollars.
Because wealthier districts receive nearly 14% more funding than high-poverty districts, Baker said that makes Rhode Island one of 20 states with regressive funding policies.
“Those high-need districts that have less funding don’t even have enough to achieve national average outcomes — Woonsocket, Pawtucket, Central Falls, Providence,” Baker said.
And Baker said this isn’t a new problem.
In 2014, he authored another report examining “America’s Most Financially Disadvantaged School Districts and How They Got that Way” between 2009 and 2011. Woonsocket and Pawtucket public schools both made the list.
Baker said funding disparities between wealthy and poor school districts are a persistent problem that state lawmakers never got around to solving.
“I’m disappointed we haven’t been able to do more, faster,” said state Sen. Ryan Pearson, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, which has closely examined Rhode Island’s decade-old education funding formula. “There’s no doubt about that.”
Pearson helped lead a Senate task force to study Rhode Island’s education funding formula in 2019. The task force published many of the same findings and recommendations in January 2020 that were included in Baker’s report.
“We had completed the report, issued the findings, started the bills in early 2020, and then the entire 2020 legislative session was blown up by COVID,” Pearson told Target 12.
Pearson said the main reason for the funding disparities between districts can be traced back to the task force’s top finding: the portion of education funding paid by a city or town, or local share, “is not consistently funded or understood.”
“The state was increasing investment, and rather than the cities and towns using it as an opportunity to increase theirs, they actually used it as an opportunity to pull back on their investment,” Pearson said.
The Cumberland Democrat said the R.I. Department of Education needs to do a better job working with local communities to help them understand what they should be funding, and if they can’t afford to pay their portion, he said the state should step in to cover the difference.
State Sen. Melissa Murray, a member of the task force, pointed to several bills the Senate passed during the 2021 session aimed at fixing issues with the state’s education funding formula. None of them passed the House, and Murray said the task force was supposed to be a joint effort, but the House declined to participate.
State Rep. Gregg Amore has been an educator for more than 30 years, and said he recognized the issues with the state’s funding formula. He told Target 12 the House is also invested in making changes but likely wouldn’t act until next year.
“I think we’re at the precipice of presenting some changes to the school funding formula within the next 12 to 16 months,” Amore said.
Murray said that’s not fast enough.
“When I hear that they don’t want to act on it this year, that’s disappointing,” she said. “Our neediest students need help now, particularly coming out of this pandemic, and I don’t think they can afford to wait.”
Carlon Howard, chief impact officer at the Equity Institute, a Rhode Island education-based nonprofit, told Target 12 the state education funding formula was created with the intention that more money would be directed toward students who are from economically disadvantaged communities.
“The challenge is, when it comes to how that actually plays out, we don’t actually see the benefits of having this weighted scale,” Howard said.
If state lawmakers do make changes to help high-poverty school districts, Howard has clear ideas for where the funding should go.
“Research has shown us time and time again, that teachers make the biggest difference on a student’s educational experience,” Howard said.
He also said additional funding should be used to expand after-school and summer school programs.