PROVIDENCE, R.I (WPRI) — The Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council released a report on Wednesday assessing the state’s decade-old education funding formula, urging the state to increase education dollars to disadvantaged districts and arguing the state’s education system is “approaching a state of crisis.”
The state’s funding formulas was overhauled about a decade ago, and was phased in over a 10-year period ending in the 2020-21 fiscal year. The report concluded that while the funding formula has resulted in increased state revenue contributions and targeted additional aid to poorer districts, many of the needier districts still have some of the lowest per-pupil spending in the state.
“We think it’s fundamentally unfair that students in Pawtucket, Woonsocket and Central Falls and those school districts have to have fewer resources,” RIPEC president Michael DiBiase told Target 12.
And RIPEC stressed the need to make changes quickly.
In a section outlining why state lawmakers should pass a constitutional amendment to include a guarantee to a “meaningful and adequate education,” RIPEC stated the shortcomings of Rhode Island’s education system are not being addressed with urgency, resulting in an education system that is “approaching a state of crisis.”
The constitutional amendment, the report argued, would force state lawmakers to fix funding formula issues or, if they don’t, would allow courts to intervene.
“If the system was working just fine, then I don’t think we would support the constitutional amendment,” DiBiase said. “But as we all know, it’s not working fine.”
In a briefing with reporters on Wednesday morning, DiBiase pointed to nearly $600 million in federal dollars entering the state through COVID relief funding. The report noted that only 20% of that funding is currently earmarked for addressing student learning loss.
DiBiase said that percentage should be much higher, and that even before the pandemic, K-12 student proficiency in reading and math in many districts was alarmingly low.
“Money is necessary but not sufficient to have high-performing schools,” DiBiase said.
But DiBiase also noted the report showed that additional dollars can make a difference in student outcomes, with especially large gains in low-income districts.
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DiBiase said RIPEC is also asking state lawmakers to add a weight for English language learners to the state’s funding formula, since educating those students often requires more resources.
RIPEC found school districts like Pawtucket, Woonsocket and Central Falls are burdened by limited property wealth and relatively high property tax rates, making it difficult for those districts to increase their local contributions.
“Those communities have such a lower tax base,” DiBiase said. “The Pawtuckets and Woonsockets actually don’t resemble the Cranstons and Warwicks—the amount of tax base per citizen is just so widely different.”
Moreover, the report stated Rhode Island is more reliant on local revenue than most other states nationwide, arguing this is another reason why the state should increase the amount it contributes.
As the graphic below shows, Rhode Island’s education funding comes roughly 52% from local sources, 41% from state sources and 7% from federal sources. Local and state contributions are more in line on average nationwide. DiBiase said if the state increased its share to 45% and allowed the local share to decrease, that would help ease the burden of the more disadvantaged districts.
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The report showed wealthier districts like Narragansett and Barrington are able to collect more local funding through property values.
“We just don’t see the urgency from the general assembly or the executive branch on improving our schools,” DiBiase said. “It’s somewhat ironic that the pandemic seems to have created less urgency when things have gotten so much worse.”
This article will be updated throughout the day.