Again: Money Isn’t the Problem in RI Education


Writing in today’s Providence Journal, Meg O’Leary and Sarah Friedman argue that the state government should increase funding for public schools, especially those in urban areas — including, naturally, those in which the pair are co-directors of a charter school:

Why this gross inequity? Our current funding formula perpetuates a divisive approach to paying for our public schools — based on property taxes — placing an ever-increasing burden on our local budgets. Essentials such as buildings, food and transportation have to be funded from the property tax base of the city or town.

So, a city with a very small tax base must carry the same funding burden as a town whose residents can pay higher property taxes? Yes. In fact, the state average for these basics to operate schools is equal to $4,400 per pupil, but cities can only afford to spend $2,100 per pupil.

But wait, aren’t we overfunding our schools? Actually, “For FY 2012, RI ranked 47th [near the bottom] in state support for public education and seventh [near the top] in local support” (p. 3, House Fiscal Advisory Staff’s Rhode Island Education Aid, 2014). This means that our state could do better in decreasing the burden any one community feels by including all of the essentials in the formula.

As usual, when people who live off tax dollars cite statistics, their work has to be checked.  If we apply the percentages from the House Fiscal report that O’Leary and Friedman cite to the U.S. Census estimates for per pupil funding that I mentioned the other day, we find that the 47th state percentage turns out to be more actual dollars than average.  The average U.S. state had per pupil spending of $10,700 in FY13, with the state government paying $4,869 (by House Fiscal’s 2012 percentages).  According to the Census, Rhode Island spends $14,415, of which the state government provides $5,117.

As for the fairness of how those funds are distributed, the state government puts multiple thumbs on the scale to tilt it toward lower-income urban communities.  The formula adds 40% to the estimated cost of educating a student if they are lower-income.  For the 2016 school year, that meant adding $3,571 to a base of $8,928.  Then the formula also estimates the community’s ability to pay and adjusts again in favor of poorer communities.

As a consequence, when the funding formula is fully phased in, the state will cover 8.7% of estimated necessary funding in Jamestown, 15.9% in East Greenwich, and 16.3% in Portsmouth while covering 93.5% in Central Falls, 87.8% in Providence, and 83.1% in Pawtucket, the three cities that O’Leary and Friedman’s charter school, the Learning Community, serves.

If the formula were fully phased in, state taxpayers would be giving the Learning Community around $10,838 per student, this year, while giving Jamestown $805 and East Greenwich $1,463. The co-directors each make over $94,000 per year in salary, with around $15,000 more in “other compensation” each.  The per-student cost of their compensation is nearly $400, which is about half of the fully implemented state aid for Jamestown.

How much more “equitable” do they think the state’s funding formula ought to be?