By Julia Steiny
When still young and blissfully naive, I was appointed to the Providence School Board. I was sure my clever, well-informed interview with the outgoing Mayor had knocked it out of the park. I later discovered I was merely a goad to the in-coming Mayor. No big deal; I was there anyway, getting what I later called my PhD in urban education.
Within about six months I realized I’d stumbled into a nasty political power game. Tax money was collected from the public in the name of educating kids, but then passed among the adult players. The battles — legal, contractual, fiscal, regulatory — left the students themselves looking like the ball that rolls off the court while team players are having at each other. The adults had lawyers, precedents and policies backing them. The kids had no voice to speak of, and were, in my eyes, getting a super raw deal. I left my old life and started working for them.
Perhaps the adults didn’t see how their actions affected kids. Perhaps they didn’t care. Likely, most would have argued that they cared deeply for students, but were powerless against the status quo. During many years as an education journalist, I saw this same set of perverse priorities played out, from feds to states to local authorities. Rhode Island is not unique. Still. Government officials should always be asking if their decisions will nurture the kids, no matter what the sector. And Education has no excuse not to.
Public battles between adults over money and power hurt kids.
Fights that seem to be deliberately instigated are particularly pernicious. Here’s what set me off this time:
Last fall Legislators convened a Commission to adjust the state’s funding formula for per pupil expenditure (ppe). A state’s education funding formula is a mind-numbingly complex set of metrics designed to determine how much funding the state will assure each student. The variables include special categories of students — those with special needs, English language learners, poverty — along with each municipality’s different ability to pay. That’s a super-simple version. A taste of the student-based complexities are here in appendix “B.”
Every state hates their funding formula. None are perfect. They balance scarce public dollars against a bazillion demands on each penny, so a funding formula is not something to be tweaked in a couple of months by a committee.
This Legislative Commission’s charge was to explore whether or not the regular district schools were getting their fair share, as compared with the public charter schools. Ooo, red flag. The real missions seemed designed to turn up the heat under the ever-simmering tensions between the charters and their traditional counterparts. To add more tension to the game, any adjustments would have to be revenue neutral, meaning no new money on the table. Zero-sum games inevitably create winners and losers. Any change means some loser kids will take it in the neck.
RI’s per-pupil expenditure is 40% higher than the national average. Its student performance is the lowest in New England. (See here.) But overall, the charters, with their 5.2% of the public-school population, are high performers, especially given that 80% of their kids are low-income and/or children of color. They are not beloved by the districts.
Someone got this battle started, eyes wide open.
The issues the adults are arguing about are real. True, a disproportionate number of high-cost special-needs kids are in the district schools. Also true: charters are reimbursed only 30% for their buildings and repairs while districts get 80%. And so it goes, with this and that placed on each side of the scales, charter versus district.
But adding a weird element to this case, the Commission unearthed a surprise. In 2014, the Department of Education started deviating from the funding formula by changing the math to give more money to the traditional districts. The decline in charter funding is now up to $360 per kid. Weirder still, the officials didn’t send the memo explaining to the charters that their funding was decreasing. Now, added to that loss, the Commission decided to reduce the charter share by another $350 per pupil. Suddenly most charters will have a structural deficit that will badly wound their programs. The families of their kids are freaking out — and with good reason.
Per usual, depriving certain kids is being done in the name of fairness, equity and educational quality. It’s bizarre that the Commission feels okay about doing this. The easiest fix would have been to run the formula as enacted and take the issues to a more comprehensive Commission. If that was going to take too long, find additional money to balance the scales without hurting kids. And don’t say there’s no money. Legislatures can always find money when they want.
Shame on the State for allowing this war. End it. And for heaven’s sake, stop doing this to the kids. How come they always slip people’s minds?