Rhode Island is well on its way to rejoining the rest of the country. Yesterday, the state's Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education considered a new method for allocating money to the state's troubled public education system. Rhode Island let its last formula for this purpose obsolesce 15 years ago, and it is now the only state without one. The proposed plan would be considerably more efficient and comprehensive than those used by most other states. The General Assembly should approve it expeditiously and with minor adjustments at most.
Since the end of the previous distributional formula, legislators have assigned money to each district based mainly on the previous year's sums, with ad hoc adjustments. This system has to end. It prioritizes back-room wrangling and sheer force of habit over efficient and reliable procedures, and it has become increasingly detached from measures of the district's actual needs. It even leaves the state open to litigation: Last month, Woonsocket and Pawtucket filed suit, claiming that the current system is unfair and arbitrary.
Brown Professor and Education Department Chair Kenneth Wong, along with two of his graduate students, worked with state officials to craft the new proposal. In an interview with the editorial page board, Professor Wong laid out the team's methodology. It considered the costs of a variety of standard school services — including some, such as special education, that many other states' formulas neglect — and estimated the baseline cost of educating each Rhode Island student at $8,295 per year. Students from low-income backgrounds tend to require more public assistance to succeed, so the team assigned a yearly sum of $11,600 to students eligible for free or reduced lunches.
Wong and his colleagues also developed a sound method of estimating the needs of individual districts. Their plan would adjust each district's yearly funding based on its median household income, concentration of low-income students, and aggregate taxable property value — a reliable proxy for its ability to pay for school operations on its own. Wong said that many states' formulas include only the latter factor, short-changing districts that have to deal with the challenges of educating relatively underprivileged children.
Flexible grants of state aid would supplement the money allocated by the team's method. They would include funds for early-childhood programs and other needs that would be difficult to assign through a general formula, Wong said. The proposal also includes a budget increase of one percent next year, raising to $722 million the state government's share of Rhode Island's roughly $2-billion primary and secondary education system. That contribution would increase by roughly 4.9 percent over the coming decade.
The plan will not make everyone happy. Some areas would suffer significant funding cuts under the proposed formula: Southern Rhode Island's sizable Chariho Regional School District would lose nearly 47 percent of its state aid. But hard-hit districts would have a full decade to internalize the reductions.
Wong estimates that over 70 percent of Rhode Island students will receive more funding under the plan — one sign among many of the damaging skew of the current system. Even districts with smaller budgets will benefit from being part of a state that puts its public education money to better use. Once the proposal heads to the General Assembly, senators and representatives must keep that in mind.
Editorials are written by The Herald's editorial page board. Send comments to editorials (at) browndailyherald.com.