PROVIDENCE — The new school funding formula passed by the General Assembly last year has been hailed by educators, public officials and parents as a vast improvement in the way Rhode Island pays for its public schools. But at least two local communities claim it is inadequate to the point of being unconstitutional because it shortchanges poorer school districts.
Pawtucket and Woonsocket were already suing the state for the way it funds school districts before the legislature adopted the formula last June. In a suit filed in February, 2010, attorney Stephen Robinson, representing both districts, called education equity “the civil rights issue of our time.” Robinson subsequently agreed to have the suit “held in abeyance” while the General Assembly hashed out the funding formula.
On Friday, Robinson filed an amended petition to continue the lawsuit.
It claims that next year, Woonsocket and Pawtucket, with problems of poverty and children at risk, will be able to spend about $1,800-$2,000 less per child per year than the state average even with the implementation of the new funding formula.
Robinson told The Times Monday that providing an additional $2,000 for each Pawtucket student would cost the state $18 million.
“We do not think the funding formula addresses the constitutional needs of children,” Robinson said Monday, “we do not think it provides an adequate education for the children of Pawtucket or Woonsocket” because it doesn’t allocate sufficient resources.
The suit further contends that the funding formula takes money away from Woonsocket and Pawtucket and “redistributes it among the six wealthiest communities in the state” — Jamestown, Newport, Narragansett, New Shoreham, Charlestown, and Little Compton.
“The new funding formula fails to deliver to the children of Pawtucket and Woonsocket an adequate amount of State resources sufficient to satisfy their Constitutional right to a meaningful public education,” Robinson said in a written statement on Monday. “Every child in Rhode Island deserves, and has a Constitutional right to, an adequate and equitable education.”
In an interview Monday, Robinson said, “standards have been established that clearly show that children in Pawtucket and Woonsocket are not getting an adequate education.
In the amended petition, Robinson contends, “the formula is not a serious effort at addressing the problem of adequate education, but instead (is) a make-shift political solution that avoids a commitment of additional state funds, while re-allocating existing funds in a manner that protects certain communities who have political leverage.
Robinson notes that, in 2007, the General Assembly commissioned and accepted a study indicating that $10,700.00 was the necessary baseline average per pupil expenditure prior to making adjustments for poverty and other factors. He asserts that this study was ignored when the General Assembly adopted the new formula. Instead, Robinson alleged, the legislature, “using a new set of fundamentally flawed data and methods, concluded that today’s students could receive an adequate education on a budget that was 25 percent less than what was determined to be the minimum amount in 2007.”
In a press release, Pawtucket School Committee Chairman Raymond Spooner said, “The General Assembly has not provided us with adequate funds to provide necessary instruction to the children of Pawtucket required by the educational standards the State has developed in the last decade, standards that show that Pawtucket’s children are being left behind. This lack of state funding has made implementing state-required science programs unachievable. We have not been provided with the funds necessary to provide teachers with the necessary professional development in science. In one school, we are without any microscopes, lab equipment or science kits.”
Anita McGuire-Forcier, a Woonsocket School Committee member and parent, said in the same release, “It breaks my heart to see children who are learning English at different grade levels combined into a single class because we lack sufficient funds despite some of the highest tax rates for education in the State. We in Woonsocket want to provide our children with the education the State says we should, but a lack of State funding makes that impossible.”
Robinson also criticizes the provisions in the formula that -- to give the state time to allocate more money to give some districts the increases that the formula dictates, and to soften the blow to communities slated to lose money – phases in funding increases over seven years and phases in decreases over 10 years.
“Even if the new formula were adequate,” Robinson noted, “the children of Pawtucket and Woonsocket must wait seven years to receive the benefit of those sums.”
The suit claims that the effects of inadequate funding are reflected in educational results.
In the 2007-2008 school year, it contends, 67 percent of Pawtucket’s students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch due to low income. Ten percent of Pawtucket’s students received English as a second language (ESL) services. Only 57 percent of the Pawtucket students who enrolled in the 9th grade in 2004-05 graduated four years later.
During the same year in Woonsocket, 64 percent of the city’s students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch due to low income. Four percent received ESL services. Only 60 percent of the Woonsocket students who enrolled in 9th grade in 2004-05 graduated four years later.
Elliot Krieger, spokesman for the RI Department of Education, said officials there have not seen any court documents and are reluctant to comment on pending court matters.