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COMMENTARY

When it comes to funding for multilingual learners, Rhode Island still has a long way to go

The state’s funding formula for education has not worked as intended for the last three fiscal years, and needs reform

In Central Falls, Patricia Montalvo wants her afterschool lessons to be a safe space for multilingual learners to practice speaking English. “Make those mistakes,” she encourages youngsters. “We’ll learn from each other.”Asher Lehrer-Small

Changing demographics present great educational challenges for Rhode Island’s K-12 schools. Since 2015, the number of multilingual learners in our school districts have increased more than 60 percent and now make up 12.5 percent of our students overall. Multilingual learners are heavily concentrated; Providence alone accounts for more than half (50.6 percent) of the state’s multilingual learners, and over 90 percent attend schools in just 10 districts. School districts in North Providence, Newport, and Cumberland have seen their numbers more than triple, while Central Falls became the first majority multilingual learner school district in 2023.

While a growing population, our multilingual learners are not performing well in school. Rhode Island’s multilingual learners perform poorly compared to their peers nationwide in math, and have very low levels of proficiency in both math and reading. Among Rhode Island districts, there are wide achievement gaps, with the worst outcomes in districts with the highest numbers and concentration of multilingual learners. In some of our better-funded schools, multilingual learners perform at much higher levels. Improving educational outcomes for multilingual learners is achievable.

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Historically the Rhode Island General Assembly has been slow to address these changing demographics and educational challenges with adequate funding solutions. Rhode Island had no separate state funding for multilingual learners until fiscal year 2017. When funding for multilingual learners was added to the state budget, the amount of money was capped, resulting in low levels of per-pupil spending. In fact, from FY 2017 to FY 2023, state funding for Rhode Island’s multilingual learners ranked near the bottom of the nation. Recognizing this deficiency, for FY 2024, the General Assembly lifted the cap on funding and nearly quadrupled the allocation for multilingual learners. This increase is a positive start, but still leaves Rhode Island 28th (the fifth lowest) out of 31 states and Washington D.C. that use a similar funding formula.

When it comes to funding for multilingual learners, we still have a long way to go.

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The conversation shouldn’t stop there. Increased funding for multilingual learners should be part of a larger conversation about equity in education spending in Rhode Island. Our funding formula for education, first adopted 13 years ago, made some progress, but not enough, for communities with the greatest numbers of economically disadvantaged students and lowest levels of property wealth. Since the start of the pandemic, hold harmless policies reversed this progress toward more equitable funding, with the largest percentage increases in education spending going to our wealthy, suburban communities.

The state’s funding formula for education has not worked as intended for the last three fiscal years, and needs reform.

While foundational, funding alone is not the answer. If Rhode Island is going to continue to grow and prosper, we need bold changes to our educational system to improve outcomes for all students.

Jeffrey S. Hamill, PhD, is a public policy analyst at the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council.