Tom Sgouros: The Problem with School Funding

Monday, December 26, 2011


I read in the news about a school district in Illinois that has been lobbying the Illinois legislature directly. It would be great if we had a few such districts here. Unfortunately, most of them seem to think their real problems are at town hall, not the state house.

Rhode Island has a relatively new school funding formula, created in 2010, and that's great, compared to not having one at all. But it's worth remembering exactly what that funding formula does. In 2007, the Assembly sponsored a study whose purpose was to help set a dollar cost figure to the state's Basic Education Program. The study, sponsored by Rep. Edie Ajello and Senator Hannah Gallo, found that it should cost between $9,150 to $10,112 per pupil to educate children in Rhode Island, plus more for English learners and special ed students. The 2010 Education funding standard, under which schools are funded now, does not refer to that study, but simply shoots for a standard of $8,295 per pupil, around 12-15% less, depending on the estimate you use for inflation.

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One of the things you hear all the time when you discuss school funding in Rhode Island is that they aren't a good deal. They are expensive and we don't get good results in exchange. The funny thing about this piece of common wisdom is that it isn't really true. Or maybe it's a tragic thing, since it is at the root of so much of the assault on public education we've seen over the past couple of decades.

Data to chew on

Any parent of an elementary or middle school child will tell you there is way too much testing going on in our schools. The disruption of actual education is unpardonable, and the boredom and frustration that result in so many young students is a disgrace to our nation. On the upside, though, there's lots of great data for us nerds to look at.

The US Department of Education runs the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) testing program and it's not only the best data, but the only real way to compare states. It is widely considered the standard against which other testing programs are to be measured.

So what does it say about Rhode Island?

The first thing you notice it says about Rhode Island is that we don't have very many schools with eight graders in them compared to other states. The NAEP sampling protocol uses test results from more middle schools in other states than we have in Rhode Island. So whereas in other states they carefully select the eighth grade schools in order to get a representative sample, here they use them all. (Hawaii, too.) This makes the eighth grade comparisons a bit suspect, since the sample is likely more urban than in other states. But the fourth grade results have no such issue, so what do they say?

In what is doubtless a surprise to many people out there, mostly the NAEP data say we're doing very well, thank you, especially for our minority children. I looked at long-term comparisons between 2011 data and back as far as the data series would let me. For fourth graders, that's back to 1992. What you see there is that all of our fourth graders have improved much more than the national average in both reading and math.

In math, Hispanic fourth graders in Rhode Island have improved almost a whole grade level more than in the rest of the nation. Our white kids have improved only slightly better than everyone else, and the black ones a little more than that. We're not so bad locally, either. Compared to Connecticut, our minority children have done better, though they have improved more and score higher in Massachusetts. In reading, you see pretty much the same thing, except our Hispanic kids out-improved their peers in Massachusetts, though their scores are lower.

How about the eighth grade? Once again, the comparisons aren't 100% valid, since the NAEP sampling strategy can't work here. But here, too, the results aren't anything to be ashamed of. Mostly our improvements track the national averages, more or less, but those national averages show a lot of improvement over the past 15 years, especially in the performance of minority children.

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The real threat

Where is the threat to our schools? At the state house -- where no one even pretends to offer adequate support to education any more -- but also at city halls and in school committees that stay at each other's throats instead of uniting to demand honesty at the state level. Over the past 15 years -- at the same time our schools were making the great strides recorded by the NAEP tests -- the state has forced cities and towns to pick up more and more of the tab, in order to cut the income tax for rich people.

To make a problem into a crisis, five years ago the state changed the property tax cap to limit those taxes, and now cities and towns can't make up the differences any more. Now we're no longer just seeing costs shift from income taxes to property taxes, we're seeing out-and-out cuts to education. There aren't any music teachers in the state with a safe job, and at the high school in my town, many AP classes only run every other year to make sure the class sizes aren't too small. Class sizes are hitting limits defined not by state standards, but by union contracts.

Tom Sgouros is the editor of the Rhode Island Policy Reporter, at and the author of "Ten Things You Don't Know About Rhode Island." Contact him at [email protected]

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