In America, the unjust lines drawn around poverty are reflected in our criminal justice and education systems. What will it take to bend the arc of our shared struggle toward progress? History is filled with examples of how barriers to electoral politics, redlining, and gerrymandering have disenfranchised economically marginalized communities from roles and opportunities that could catalyze transformative change. It now falls on us to prepare and activate future generations to dismantle the barriers that have been levied against our collective calls for equity and justice. To do so, we must consider the influence that Rhode Island’s education funding formula has on concentrating poverty, and what bold steps we can take to effect programmatic progress for future generations.
In 1994, Pawtucket, West Warwick, and Woonsocket sued the state, demanding the state create, enact, and implement an education funding formula that would fairly distribute resources to school districts, in ways that would foster equal opportunity. After 27 years, the current funding formula still fails to deliver on equity. The current formula defines the costs of core education services for students, ensures that funds are allocated to school districts based on the number of students enrolled. The formula also adjusts students who receive free or price reduced lunches, which is how poverty is accounted for. Other funding needs are addressed separately, such as, language learning costs.
The formula is designed to make school districts fiscally dependent on municipal property tax rates. The state contributes a share of funding made to school districts, but cities and towns independently establish rate levels of property tax, which when leveled can leave school districts with significant funding gaps. This allows the state to displace accountability to cities and towns, and leaves funding gaps unaddressed. As a result, the disparities in resources for traditionally marginalized and underserved students continue to widen.
Educational exceptionalism is reinforced by systemic inequities. Isn’t it time to ensure that we have an education funding formula that fosters universal excellence amongst all students? Addressing equity cannot be isolated to fixed adjustments based on a poverty indicator (e.g., free lunch). In Cranston, we observe how level funding due to affluence on one side of the city has masked needs of students experiencing poverty on the other side of the city. While in Barrington, affluence has resulted in stronger support structures in the school district, which benefit the smaller number of students experiencing economic hardship. However, Barrington still benefits from state contributions that could be used to support the city of Pawtucket, a city which lacks adequate support infrastructure to meet the demands of historically marginalized communities with greater funding needs. Addressing equity requires a formula that weighs multiple characteristics of students whose economic status, social conditions, and specialized needs are not currently being met.
It’s time to consider an alternative funding formula, which weighs poverty in combination with other needs. It’s time to consider fixing the percentage of local funding contributions, and to ensure the state is filling the funding gaps. Most importantly, it’s time to quantify needs and impact. To do so, we propose Education Equity Zones (EEZs).
To meet a challenge, we must first identify it. Education Equity Zones would be composed of school districts, school committees, parents/students, and education advocacy organizations. Modeled after the Health Equity Zones, EEZs would quantitatively analyze equity needs and formula impact. Annually, EEZs would report to the department of education. EEZs would empower school committees and communities to hold the state accountable. We can create a more equitable funding formula in Rhode Island. The fight for equity begins at the local level.
Luis Daniel Muñoz is a Democrat running for Governor of Rhode Island. Jennifer Lima is a North Kingstown School Committee member. David Alden Sears is a Cranston School Committee member.