Accelify Blog

Activists Press Need for School Funding Formula (RI)

May 12, 2010

During the early 1990s, three cities filed a suit demanding that the courts provide every student with the same shot at a quality education. The lawsuit, which ultimately failed, pitted urban school districts against suburban ones.

Twenty years later, repeated cuts in school aid have smoothed out the political differences between the haves and the have-nots: everyone is hurting for cash, now.

Urban and suburban school districts joined forces at the State House Tuesday to rally around the need for a school-funding formula. Students from Woonsocket joined teens from Providence’s Young Voices, a youth-advocacy group. School board members from Cumberland shared the podium with the director of the Center for Hispanic Policy and Advocacy.

They gathered under the umbrella of a new grass-roots organization called Rhode Island is Ready, the brainchild of Karina Wood, an activist parent from the East Side, and Maryellen Butke, formerly of the Met School in Providence and now the director of Rhode Island Campaign for Achievement Now.

“We’ve got people from all different districts united around the urgent need for a fair funding formula,” Wood said. “We started this group in January because there was no statewide grassroots organization fighting for education reform.”

Tuesday, every community had its own tale of woe. City Council President John Ward said Woonsocket has cut staff by 14 percent, gone five years without buying new textbooks and is poised to eliminate all-day kindergarten. In Cumberland, which already has one of the lowest per-pupil expenditures in the state, the budget has been flat since 2008.

“Without a state funding formula, I wonder if my three sons will receive a quality education,” said Lisa Beaulieu, a member of the Cumberland School Committee. “When I told my son that we were the only state in the nation without a funding formula, he said, ‘That’s absurd.’ Forty-nine states have figured this out already. Is it that hard for Rhode Island?”

After a public rally, the group’s members spread out across the State House to buttonhole legislators about passing a funding formula during this session.

Separate bills by House Finance Chairman Steven M. Costantino and Rep. Edith Ajello are before the General Assembly. Both establish a foundation figure, an estimate of the cost of educating each student. Both bills also provide additional money per child for students living in poverty and/or students who speak another language other than English. And both bills award extra aid to Providence, the largest school district and arguably the one with the most needs.

Rhode Island is Ready likes aspects of both bills, Wood said. But there are certain elements that are non-negotiable:

•The state needs to assume 45 to 50 percent of the cost of education. Currently, the state only picks up one-third of the tab, the seventh-lowest in the country, according to Wood.

•Create a predictable funding formula so districts can p lan their budgets.

•Make sure that districts with the least local resources receive a greater proportion of state aid.

Elizabeth Burke Bryant, executive director of Rhode Island Kids Count, closed the rally with a resounding call to action.

“We need a bill to pass this year,” she said. “We need to be sure that this bill gets everything right.”