Friday, June 25, 2010

Formula for success

Some more incredible news from Rhode Island (which has received no attention to date): the General Assembly passed a bill ensuring that state education aid will follow the students.  To an outsider, this might seem obvious – of course schools and school districts should receive funds based on how many students they have (and what type of students – e.g., special ed), right? – but in the Alice in Wonderland world of our public school system, this isn't at all how it works in many (most?) places, so this bill in RI is important, both for RI and also (hopefully) as a precedent nationally.  Here's an editorial in the Providence Journal praising the move:

Formula for success

01:00 AM EDT on Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Rhode Island should be pleased with a strong new — possibly historic! — school-funding formula that the General Assembly has passed. For the first time, starting in fiscal 2012, at least $850 million in state education aid each year will "follow the students" — providing a strong incentive to local communities to make their schools the best possible. This could be a milestone in the state's efforts to improve public education. Kudos to legislators.

The funding formula replaces a chaotic and highly political system that left some districts with declining school populations receiving far more money than they should have gotten — money that often merely went to boost already generous benefits for politically powerful teachers unions.

Now, the dollars more rationally follow the students, with extra help going to the poorest — those who present the toughest education challenges, because of language difficulties and other problems.

And community leaders will be pleased to be able to plan for their education aid under a more transparent and rational system.

Best of all, that funding is connected to students provides some built-in accountability. As parents move their children to better-performing districts and charter schools, the money will essentially go with them. Communities that are doing the best job, therefore, can, to some degree, expect the most aid. That will put stronger pressure on local leaders to do what is right for the students.

Because the "rotten boroughs" under the old system — places where money was outstripping student population — are no more, most students will benefit from the new formula. Indeed, 70 percent of the state's 140,000 public-school students will receive more aid under the new system. Communities that lose money may have to do some belt-tightening, shrinking their workforces or providing benefits that are not as generous.

The new formula won overwhelming support from the legislature. Rep. Steven Costantino (D.-Providence) argued it will "transform the state and put it on strong footing to be competitive nationally." (The opposition tended to be purely parochial, from districts facing steep — if justifiable — cuts.)

But it also won praise, this time, from passionate advocates of school reform in local communities, as well as from Education Commissioner Deborah Gist. Some school-reform leaders had worked to block past funding formulas, which tended to throw money at communities on the basis of politics, with little rational connection to students.

The formula may not be perfect. There are areas that may have to be refined in the years ahead, since it is a judgment call how much extra it costs to educate a poorer child, and what factors should go into the calculations.

We will be watching to see whether true accountability is built into the system, and whether extra money really will benefit students and the general public.

But the school-funding formula sure looks like a plan to put students back where they should be in questions of education — front and center.

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