We’re the only state in the country with no school funding formula. A new push to establish one must tackle an almost impossible question: how to make it fair?

The statehouse hearing room held only adults that afternoon, but Anita McGuire-Forcier saw quite clearly that her children were pinned under political crossfire. It was March 2008, and newly installed Woonsocket Superintendent Robert Gerardi stood before a state finance sub-committee pleading for legislative mercy.

The district had been cutting resources every year for a decade. The student population had been stable, but the teaching and administrative staff had been shrinking. Many secondary school students walked more than two miles to school because Woonsocket couldn’t afford the buses. The consumer science textbook was so old it didn’t even mention the food pyramid.

As Gerardi made his presentation, one committee member snapped her gum. Another rolled his eyes.

McGuire-Forcier smoldered in the front row. A school committee member and a mom of three, McGuire-Forcier had been an active member of the school community since her children were in kindergarten. Of late, she had been lobbying anyone who would listen about the need for an equitable school funding formula. But one of her first successes had been helping the district establish a policy on bullying. This situation had a familiar ring. “One of them made a comment that because our city level-funded the schools our children didn’t deserve more state funding. I got out of my seat and said: ‘You don’t like our mayor so you are going to hurt our children?’ ” she re-called. “Oh, my blood was boiling at that point. To me, children are the innocent victims. That’s when I knew I had to find an attorney.”

Rhode Island’s tortured history of school funding has left it the only state in the nation that does not apportion its aid to education according to any formula. But there are signs that this will be the year that the crazy quilt of allocations finally comes unraveled. Woonsocket joined with Pawtucket and filed a lawsuit against the state, asking the Superior Court to affirm that public school students’ constitutional right to an adequate education had been violated and to direct the state to establish an equitable funding formula.

Meanwhile, the Board of Regents voted unanimously to endorse a Rhode Island Department of Education proposal to re-distribute education funding under a new calculation in which state dollars follow the student. The proposal establishes the basic per-pupil annual cost at $8,295 and adds 40 percent for impoverished students. The total is then divided between the state and the municipal governments according to a formula that accounts for a community’s ability to pay. This plan includes little new money. Unlike past attempts, it does not hold harmless districts that have been over-compensated. Districts scheduled to receive less state aid would have a decade to adjust to the new formula.  

“We are so confident in this funding formula,” says Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist. “If this moves forward, we will move from being the only state in the nation without a funding formula to the state with a national model of a funding formula.”

If there is any task basic to governance in America, it is allocating tax dollars for public education. A line item in state budgets since 1840, universal education lies at the heart of our ideal of a meritorious democracy. In practice, however, deciding whose children get what turns out to be the most intractable of political determinations. Many states have formulas that simply enforce the economic status quo, and many have been sued over them.

“Most school finances have been unfair for decades,” says David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, a legal advocacy group located in Newark, New Jersey. “We spend a lot, but we don’t allocate the money properly. The states aren’t raising sufficient resources and targeting them to ensure that funding is fair to districts with higher concentrations of poverty. This is a big challenge. How do you turn that around? It brings up deep issues around class, around race, around suburbanization, white flight, unions, property taxes. They aren’t easy issues.”

The forty-nine pages of the Woonsocket and Pawtucket lawsuit follows Rhode Island’s meandering path around a resolution. In 1960, the General Assembly adopted a funding formula that adjusted according to the wealth of the local community. Over the next thirty years, the legislature would increase its share of the public education bill from 25 percent to 35 percent, with a goal of providing 60 percent of school aid. The state share has never risen above 43 percent, making it among the lowest percentages in the nation.

By the early 1990s, the cracks in the old formula, compounded by an insufficient state share, began to show. There were wide funding disparities among communities. But when the credit unions collapsed, throwing the state’s finances into crisis, then-Governor Bruce Sundlun cut all districts by 10 percent. The decision did not take into account shifting school populations or demographics.

In 1993, West Warwick, Pawtucket and Woonsocket filed the first lawsuit in Superior Court challenging the cut. Alarmed at the prospect of a court order, the General Assembly feverishly drafted legislation to re-jigger education funding. In 1994, the urban districts won the case. The General Assembly, rather than enacting The Education Reform Act of 1994, appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court. In 1995, the high court overturned the verdict, finding that although the state constitution guaranteed all Rhode Islanders a public education, it also gave the General Assembly exclusive power over that education, and was beyond the court’s reach.
Attorney Stephen Robinson, a veteran of education law who represents Woonsocket and Pawtucket then and now, was vacationing in Florida when he got that news.

“It’s generally agreed to be the worst or second worst education law decision in the country,” Robinson said. “I was really in a depression. But I knew I was right: morally, ethically, on the law and on the facts. This time, I hope I’m up to the task.”

In the fifteen years since then, the General Assembly attempted to even things out with grants to urban and poor districts, while the longstanding inequities were essentially frozen into place. But much else has changed: achievement standards and expectations were raised, educational mandates were increased, and the General Assembly capped annual local property tax increases at 4 percent. 
The sign that should give Robinson the most optimism is a public no longer willing to tolerate the intolerable equation. In 2004, the voters amended the state constitution to separate the powers among the three branches of government, repealing the section that formed the basis of the 1995 Supreme Court decision. More recently, Mary Ellen Butke and Karina Wood, two mothers of Providence school children with a keen interest in education reform and a history of community organizing, formed Rhode Island is Ready. The rapidly growing grassroots group is pushing for an equitable school funding formula.  
“In the last lawsuit, one of the missing pieces was a public outcry,” Butke says.

Another grassroots group is New York City’s Campaign for Fiscal Equity, formed back in 1995 by parents and advocates. It, too, launched a lawsuit that wound through state and federal courts for thirteen years, before securing a final judgment that forced New York State to more equitably fund schools. But the Campaign’s executive director, Geri Palast, warns that even court victories are no guarantee.

“It does carry moral authority, but none of these solutions are permanent. Each generation of leaders has to keep renewing this fight,” she says. “The issue doesn’t go away. In economic times like now, the people who have the least continue to get the least.”

The battle for hearts and minds here has already been joined. When the Department of Education released the details of its formula, many in the state collectively gasped. Although the funding is tied directly to the student, the newspaper sorted the final aid figures by district winners and losers. The community slated to get far and away the biggest boost in state aid? Barrington.