The school committees of Pawtucket and Woonsocket filed an amended petition to a lawsuit April 7 against the state for allegedly failing to provide the districts with adequate funds for education under its new funding formula.
The suit was originally filed in February 2010, before the General Assembly passed the funding formula. "The concern was there was a mismatch between what the state expects from school districts in terms of providing quality education for kids and the resources that the state makes available to do that," said Samuel Zurier, one of the districts' two attorneys.
"We like the performance standards that the state department of education is developing, and the school district would love to … be able to give the kids a shot at meeting those standards," he added. "The problem is there's not enough resources to do it."
The state funding formula divides $682 million in education aid among 53 districts annually. Some districts will receive increased funding, and others will experience a decrease, according to the formula, which will go into effect July 1. All changes will be phased in over a period of seven to 10 years.
Pawtucket and Woonsocket are slated to receive increased funding, by $1.5 million and $1 million, respectively.
"While it's better than not having a funding formula … our opposition is that even when fully implemented over a seven-year period, it is still not going to provide equity and education," said Thomas Conlon, business administrator for the Pawtucket School Department. "There will still be some districts that will be able to spend more per pupil to provide an adequate and meaningful and equitable education."
Until recently, Rhode Island was the only state in the country without a funding formula.
"It is the responsibility of the state to make sure that the children in the state of Rhode Island would have access to schooling opportunities and high-quality instruction," said Kenneth Wong, professor of education and chair of the department. Wong, along with several graduate students, was heavily involved in the development of the funding formula.
"I was very pleased to see that actually 71 percent of students in the state received more funding as a result of the state funding formula," Wong said. "It would be nice if 100 percent would receive more money, but 71 percent is still a strong number."
He added that education funding is the responsibility both of the state and of local governments. "Woonsocket and Pawtucket are going to get more funding, but at the same time the local (communities) also need to think about how they would prioritize education in their community and then to think about how many resources they would want to spend on their own."
Pawtucket and Woonsocket are among the top four highest-funded cities in the state, receiving over 80 percent of their education funding from the state, Wong said.
The plaintiffs' attorneys also cited the fact that the formula does not automatically allocate money for educating special needs students as a fundamental flaw.
But the money will be given in categorical funding outside of the formula, Wong said. "There is a lot of additional funding … and there are other commitments the state is going to provide to the two communities."
State funding is based on specific data incorporated into the funding formula, Wong added. "The formula is based on a very careful analysis of how much it costs to provide core instructional services to the children. It also takes into consideration the local fiscal capacity and the concentration of low income children," he said.
The formula counts low income children as needing an increased 40 percent in funding. Because data on special education and English as a Second Language students is often unreliable, Wong said, the formula concentrates on more concrete data such as income. The formula's creators found overlapping needs between ESL, special needs and low income students. "If we consider the concentration effect of low income children in our formula, … then I think that would address a substantial amount of the problem," Wong said.
Three Rhode Island cities filed a similar lawsuit about 15 years ago, Zurier said. The plaintiffs won at the trial level but the case was thrown out by the state Supreme Court. "One of the challenges of bringing this case was making a case for why things are different now," he said.
"We ought to let the formula run for about three years and then see if there are ways that we can fine-tune and change it," Wong said. Education funding is "both a state and a local responsibility, and we need to see how the cities respond and work with the state in terms of prioritizing education."
"We knew that not everyone was going to be happy with the formula, but we felt it was fair and equitable," said Larry Berman, spokesman for House Speaker Gordon Fox, D-Providence. Fox will continue to look at the formula and "tweak it" with time, Berman said.
"Pawtucket and Woonsocket did get more money, but I think they want even more," he said. "But it's the best that the General Assembly could do."