Wednesday, April 8, 2009

RI equitable school funding formula: now! but how?

This past Sunday's ProJo featured "State aid formula is desperately overdue," in which Edward Fitzpatrick looks at two equitable school funding formulas that will be before the General Assembly. Rep. Edith H. Ajello, D-Providence's bill phases in a new formula over three years: 25% the first year, 50% the second, and 100% the third. Sen. Hanna M. Gallo, D-Cranston, is introducing another bill that calls for a funding approach in which "no districts would see their state aid fall under a new formula. Instead, they would stay at current levels until the formula says they deserved an increase."

Describing Ajello's bill, Rhode Island Policy Reporter wrote:

There was a bill introduced in the House last week calling for a real school aid
formula. It had 38 co-sponsors, including much of the leadership. You'd think
this was enough to pass it, wouldn't you? Silly you. A fair education formula
would cost money, and nothing that costs new money can pass this legislature,
because no one in a position of influence will endorse paying for it. They'll
"call" for a program like this, and talk about how wonderful and fair it
would be, but they won't pay for it, so it won't happen.

While the lack of will that RIPR describes make Gallo's strategy more politically viable, we're far less likely to get the results our state's education system so desperately needs, and in this case, something may not be better than nothing. Without an established implementation date, and without certainty about when funds will be available, Fitzpatrick observes, states won't get the funding predictability they require to create budgets that allow them to carry out instructional initiatives that make a real difference to learning and ultimately--as Deborah Gist, our new state education commissioner has pointed out--the state's bottom line.

Ajello's approach forces reconciliation, shifting money to some towns and away from other in order to address the inequities that have become status quo in the system. In the real money (ha) quote of his piece, Fitpatrick observes, "...while there would be winners and losers under a new formula, there are winners and losers now — meaning some districts are getting more than they should and some are getting far less." Facing that political reality and summoning the collective courage and will to address it is the most meaningful way the General Assembly can make a positive difference to the most disadvantaged populations in our state and, ultimately, to our bottom line. No one wants anyone to lose funding--there should not be losers, and with many others, I hope that state leadership will reassess priorities and combine the best of Ajello and Gallo's approaches, thereby raising all boats and damaging none.

In this financial climate, choices must be made, and the best choice is not to continue to try to ostrich the problem away. Put Ajello's funding in place, and work over its three-year phase-in to identify funds to supplement districts' budgets that may take a hit. Let the sand fall from the General Assembly's eyes so the see that this is a challenge to our state's welfare and sustainability that can't be ignored any longer.

Friday, April 3, 2009

R.I. Commissioner of Education appointed

The ProJo covered the State Board of Regents' appointment of Deborah Gist to be the next state commissioner of education yesterday. I like that she's come in talking about how great schools are the best way to revitalize a struggling economy. As her leadership direction emerges, I'll write about it here, and we'll explore the role of a state commissioner of education on the progress of schools in every community and neighborhood.

Also in question, at least at this early date, are the levels of consistency and divergence with outgoing state ed commissioner Peter McWalter. Of particular interest to me is how committed Gist will be to Rhode Island's high school graduation framework, which contain requirements for students to participate in senior projects, presentations, and portfolio assessment, as this 2008 Education Week story from last year described. In this area, Rhode Island is a leader nationwide. Among Gist's many priorities, I hope that she values this sort of performance-based assessment, which allows all students--including those who may struggle demonstrating what they know and can do solely through high stakes standardized testing--to connect to their communities, apply their academic skills to real-world situations, and demonstrate skills regarded as essential for 21st century success. 

And what will Gist do to build on McWalters' February 2009 letter that established policy that allowed cities to eliminate bumping, shifting instead to more school-based control over teacher hiring? More on that to come...